The Duchess Of Malfi – March 2018

Preview performance

Experience: 4/10

By John Webster

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 7th March 2018

We appreciated the first half of this show much more than the second: but for some design choices, which to us seemed unfortunate, this would have been a feather in Maria Aberg’s cap. As it is, tickets may be returned, and I certainly won’t be recommending this production to any of our friends. My main problem was the excessive amount of blood: although there are a lot of murders in this play, they aren’t all bloody, and the amount of artificial red stuff on show was simply unnecessary, especially for someone as squeamish as myself. Remove the carcass (more on that later), remove the blood, and I’d be more than happy to see this again.

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Doctor Faustus – March 2016

Experience: 3/10

By Christopher Marlowe

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th March 2106

Maria Aberg is fast heading for “Danger, Will Robinson” status, given to those directors whose work we avoid so as not to waste any of our precious remaining minutes on this planet. This production moved her a good few notches closer – only memories of her As You Like It stand between her and oblivion. (I doubt this will trouble her in the least.) Tonight’s offering was dire in every way except the performances by the lead actors – we have huge respect for the work they do, and given the unfortunate nature of the production they did as well as could be expected. Even so, I avoided adding to the applause at the end, and Steve’s contribution was polite but unenthusiastic.

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As You Like It – August 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 12th August 2013

Our view was completely different again from our previous two visits, as we were up in the circle. Despite having a good view, I did feel a bit distanced from the production as I couldn’t see the actors’ expressions clearly – we’ve become terribly spoilt in recent years. There was more detail in some parts of the performance, but on the whole it was much the same as before, and without the surprise value I didn’t find it as uplifting as last time, hence the reduced rating.

Adam was clearly getting a little fed up with Orlando’s whinging after so many performances, as he joined in the “a thousand crowns” tonight like he’d already heard the story a thousand times. Oliver hit Orlando after the line “What, boy!”, and when he was talking with Charles later, I noticed he wrote something in a notebook after thanking the wrestler and saying he would requite him – a reminder to reward Charles in future perhaps? Charles hit Oliver on the shoulder in a friendly way before he left, but it was still a bit too hard for Oliver’s liking.

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As You Like It – May 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 29th May 2013

We were sitting by the left walkway tonight, and although there was a pillar right in front of us, we managed to enjoy the performance as much as before as well as seeing some extra things we’d missed the last time. The performances had all come on, with the first half still being less fun and the second half being really good, and we stayed on for the post-show which added some useful information.

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As You Like It – April 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 16th April 2013

My heart sank as we entered the auditorium and I realised they were playing the low frequency torture sounds again, my least favourite start to a performance. I managed to last out without throwing up. The set was a raised square platform within the main stage, with a few feet left free on three sides. It had a chequerboard pattern on it while the rest of the stage floor was blank. A pillar by the left walkway was echoed by a number of other pillars, all square, all grey, dotted around the rear half of the stage and there were dead leaves everywhere. Orlando and Adam came on before the start to sweep them up, making a tidy pile of half of them near the back right corner which they loaded into a wheelbarrow. Along the back of the stage were more grey wooden panels at different angles. Everything looked dark grey to begin with, including the clothes, but when the lights changed for the start, I could see that the pillars were brown.

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King John – August 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Wednesday 22nd August 2012

Our experience tonight was much better than last time, and there were several reasons for this. Firstly, the performances had come on a lot since May which was to be expected, although the seven week layoff (barring one performance) could have been a problem. Secondly we heard an excellent talk this afternoon by Robert Maslan about the play, and although he based it on the regular text rather than this production, we learned more details which helped in our understanding. Our position was different too, which helped, and of course we knew this time that we weren’t seeing the usual version of the text, so we could relax and enjoy this interpretation without getting hung up on the casting or the set.

The opening was the same, but as we’d also had a session with Pippa Nixon this morning I’m afraid we Summer Scholars got a bit carried away with Land Of Hope And Glory and nearly ruined the entrance of the court. The Bastard’s ukulele playing hasn’t improved much, I’m sad to say. John did the same little tease with the crown as before, and again ignored the French ambassador for a while before listening to him. When the bastard Falconbridge and her brother came on, Pippa started to use her feminine charms to win the argument, unzipping her top and displaying her cleavage to good advantage (as she had done last time), but although John noticed her looks, the sexual attraction between them was kept in check most of the time which allowed the other aspects of their relationship to be explored much more, and overall I felt that helped the performance.

In front of Angiers, the wrangling between the two sides was clearer this time. The citizens stood round the balcony and spoke in unison, first to declare their allegiance to the King of England, then to point out that they didn’t know who that was, and then to put forward the suggestion that Blanche and the Dauphin marry to create peace between France and England. I didn’t spot when Constance and Arthur left this scene; probably during the general exit before the townsfolk made their marriage proposal. From our position tonight I could see Blanche and Louis sitting on the steps while this talk was going on, and I had a much clearer view of their incompetent wooing. Louis was totally self-regarding, seeing himself when he looked in her eyes, while her lines were delivered so jerkily that it was impossible to tell whether she liked the Dauphin or not, as was intended.

Again Elinor had to prompt John with a cough to add Anjou to the list of provinces in Blanche’s dowry, and again she held her hand to her head in reaction to him giving away thirty thousand marks as well. The bargain was sealed with a chest bump between the two kings, and then they partied. The court posed on the steps as before, and following today’s talk the “commodity” speech came over much better. When John brought out the microphone he started speaking the line “the moment I wake up”, then began singing with the next line “before I put on my makeup”. The King of France carried on, and then everyone joined in. Soon Blanche and Louis were holding the microphones and stood facing each other on a couple of the benches. Their song wasThe Time Of My Life, and really got the crowd rocking, especially with their Dirty Dancing routine.

Eventually the party moved off stage and Constance, accompanied by Arthur, Salisbury and Pembroke, came on (Pembroke is an addition to my text). Her grief was more like anger, which helped to keep the energy levels up. I’ve often found her whining rather dreary in past productions, by Susie Trayling was very good in this role, and kept me watching and listening for once.

The party returned, coming on from both sides at the top of the stairs. Not seeing Constance at first, Philip was very happy and announced a new French public holiday. Then he and John, arms on each other’s shoulders, turned and walked down the steps, to be confronted by a very angry woman. Oops. I did like the extra party hats, especially the clown’s hat worn by Austria which rather undercut his macho attempts to stop the Bastard insulting him, and we both appreciated the devil’s horns which Elinor had chosen to wear on her head.

Fortunately the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, arrived to speak to John about releasing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately, John decided not to cooperate with the Holy Father’s request, and was excommunicated. Philip struggled to find a way out of his predicament; he didn’t want to lose the new-found peace by going to war against England, but the threat of being excommunicated himself was too much to resist. Blanche’s situation was no better; she was now connected to both sides, and would lose either way. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the performances tonight, but the one that came closest was this, when Blanche expressed her divided loyalties and the suffering this was causing her. She went with Louis, but was never happy again.

After introducing us to Austria’s head, the Bastard took on Hubert’s role, meaning that Essex had to take on the Bastard’s job of raising money in England. When suborning the Bastard to kill young Arthur, John first gave him his own silver dog tags to wear, which the Bastard was proud to receive. The sexual attraction got in the way of this scene first time round; it was better tonight without such distractions.

The next scene with the French included Blanche as well, though being without dialogue she sat on the steps and said nothing. Constance was excellent in this scene, with all her arguments coming across clearly. After she left, followed by King Philip, Pandulph began to manipulate Louis into attacking England in order to claim the throne by right of his marriage to Blanche. This caused Blanche’s only reaction in this scene – she stood up when Pandulph first made this suggestion, not happy at the prospect of war between France and England.

The attempt at blinding Arthur was OK; I heard quite a lot of the lines, and I’d been aware since this morning’s talk how often eyes and sight were mentioned in this play, but the main point of the scene in this version was to show the change in the Bastard’s attitude to King John. When the Bastard led Arthur off they took the interval, and again there were fewer seats occupied in the second half, though it wasn’t as obvious as with Troilus And Cressida last week.

The second half started with another song from the Bastard, and during it John appeared at the top of the stairs. (I haven’t been able to track down the lyrics – something about keeping baby teeth in a drawer with jewellery.) Again he placed his crown on his own head and stood there while she sang. When the song was finished, the balloons were released, along with lots of confetti which landed on the audience as well. The Bastard dragged the microphone stand off after looking at John on the steps; I wondered if this was meant to reflect her change of attitude.

John’s discussion with Salisbury and Pembroke was interrupted by the Bastard, and from the lords’ comments it was clear that they had heard of the King’s intent to kill Arthur and that the Bastard had been chosen to carry out the murder. The announcement of Arthur’s death was no surprise to these men, and after they left John received the news of the Dauphin’s army, his mother’s death and Constance’s death, while from the Bastard, resuming her non-Hubert shape, he heard of the unrest in the country. John was not a happy bunny. He ranted at the Bastard for misinterpreting his commands, but then she showed him the very order which he had signed. He next complained that she hadn’t prevented this mistake on his part, and frankly I wanted to shout ‘man up’ at the little wimp. After a bit of rough-housing, he had the Bastard on her back and was viciously grabbing at her crotch, but she managed to get away and finally admitted, Hubert-like, that she hadn’t done the deed. Relief all round, and John sent the Bastard running off to tell the peers.

Meanwhile, at the castle Arthur was making his escape. The walls were high and slippery, and with the lights lowered he had difficulty making his way to safety. They staged this differently according to my earlier notes. Arthur came down the steps some way, saying his lines, then another Arthur edged out along the top. They reflected each other’s positions, facing in opposite directions, then fell down, one behind the steps and the other onto the ground. With the balloons hiding the body, it was quite plausible that the lords could come on, discussing their meeting with the French, and not see the corpse until well into the scene. Of course with the Bastard and Hubert being one and the same, the lines were rearranged considerably, and the long dialogue between the two characters was severely cut. When Salisbury drew his ‘sword’, the Bastard drew her gun, which was funny, and being a woman she couldn’t actually pick up the dead boy; she cradled him in her arms, and his corpse walked off stage later when the next scene was under way.

The rapprochement between John and Pandulph was next. John came to the front of the stage and took off his shirt, then knelt down with his coronet over his praying hands, facing Pandulph who had come down the steps. She asserted her authority over him by staying well back, so he had to shuffle towards her on his knees, then bowed right down before her. When she lifted up his hands to remove the crown, he held on to it briefly, as if loath to let it go, but released it eventually. As soon as he’d been crowned (again) he became all business-like, telling the legate to hurry and stop the French army, while Pandulph was confident that what she had started she could stop. The Bastard reported the latest information to the king, including Arthur’s actual death, and was incensed to hear of yet another compromise, on this occasion with the Church. This time, I was aware of John giving the Bastard authority to run things. I also spotted that the ‘For God and England’ neon sign at the back was flickering and losing some of its letters, another indication that the country was going to rack and ruin.

When Louis met with the English lords, Blanche was present again, but only just. I don’t know what she’d been taking, alcohol or drugs or both, but she looked terrible. Her marriage wasn’t turning out well for her, and I wondered if, like Lady Anne in Richard III, she wouldn’t be long for this world. When Pandulph turned up, she learned that it wasn’t so easy to stop a war as to start one, and with the Bastard making defiant declarations it looked like there might be a battle after all.

King John was with his son, Prince Henry, when he felt ill and had to go to Swinstead Abbey. The next three scenes were trimmed to the essentials only, and played out in a repeating fashion from the balconies. John was down below, watching these events, as if he was being given the news while his fevered mind tried to make sense of it. The Bastard said the lines “Show me the very wound of this ill news: I am no woman. I’ll not swoon at it” (unfortunate, given that she was a woman), the French reported their lost supplies and the changing allegiance of the English, the French count Melun warned the English lords that the Dauphin meant to kill them after the victory was won, and these sections were repeated several times. This phase was brought to a conclusion by the reply to the Bastard, informing us that the king had been poisoned. Then things got even more surreal.

The king sat on one of the benches, clearly unwell. This went on for a bit, then he got up, the music started and he began to do a dance routine, looking like he was fine. He went through the routine a couple of times so we could see what it was meant to look like, then he began to suffer, as did the dancing, and finally he staggered to the steps and collapsed there, reaching towards the bottles of champagne – partying to the end. The Bastard arrived as did Prince Henry, and with a few speeches from the final scene, the king finally died. The Bastard hugged him, wept, and looked more distressed than the young prince, who took up the crown and held it till the end. The Bastard closed the play with the familiar speech, and I found myself pondering that England had indeed been conquered, by William, and not that long before. Still, it was a good ending, and we were much happier at the end of this performance than last time.

Once again, having consulted the text, I’m aware that this was only a version of the play, and a much adulterated version to boot. The production hung together well enough in its own terms, but I wasn’t moved by any of the characters, and while the female Bastard/Hubert seemed to work better this time around, I’m not convinced it’s a helpful interpretation overall. Pippa Nixon’s excellent performance made a difference, and she and Alex Waldmann came on to take some bows together tonight, which seemed appropriate. His performance as John was very good, and I hope the RSC will find more work for him to do in the future (we already know that Pippa is coming back to give us Rosalind and Ophelia). Credit to the rest of the cast as well; they worked well together and that’s vital for a good performance.

We’re not usually concerned to see ‘traditional’ Shakespeare – as if there was such a thing – but I’d certainly prefer see a production of this play which sticks more to the text than they did tonight. The similarities with modern times were reasonably appropriate, and the energy and humour were good fun, but we still felt there was something lacking, that the production wasn’t as meaty as it could have been. I do hope other actresses can find this level of anger and passion in the Constance role though; it really helps the performance to have that character played so strongly. But now that we’ve had the Complete Works and World Shakespeare Festivals, perhaps they’ll return to doing this play less frequently; we’ll see.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King John – May 2012

5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Thursday 17th May 2012

Controversial! This re-interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s least-loved plays had some interesting ideas and stagings, but ultimately proved to be a triumph of style over substance. The stage was covered in a chain-link carpet in drab brown, with steps at the back and various rectangular blocks around the place for tables, seats, etc. there were potted plants, an art deco sunburst chandelier, and a netted swathe of large balloons above the steps, completely blocking out a neon ‘for God and England’ which appeared once the balloons were released at the start of the second half. This was a sleazy, corrupt, eighties-style country, with everyone out for financial gain and not much else, and lots of strong women pushing the men around. An interesting starting point, but would it bring out aspects of the play we hadn’t experienced before?

Before the play proper, Pippa Nixon, in multi-coloured tights and a short black dress, warmed us up with a shaky rendering of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on her ukulele. We joined in as best we could, at her insistence, then they started their version of the play itself with the entrance of the king and his court. This opening section was good fun, with Alex Waldmann’s King John a stronger presence than I’ve seen before. With the whole court assembled, he stood on the steps and toyed with them by starting to put the coronet on his own head, then stopping, then actually going through with it. The court was caught mid-bow or courtesy, but then there were cheers and applause. When a man in a pastel pink suit arrived, he was told to wait, and was kept waiting for some time until the king deigned to speak with him. This turned out to be Chatillon – the king read out his name tag in slow syllables before letting it ping back – and the bickering between France and John over the true king of England had begun.

After Chatillon’s departure, while John was giving orders for the church establishments to pay for the expected war, the dispute between two of Robert Falconbridge’s ‘sons’ came before John, only this time the elder ‘son’ was actually a daughter, played by Pippa Nixon. Both Queen Elinor and John registered their recognition of the Bastard’s similarity to Richard Lionheart, although we had nothing to go on, of course. The forthright battling spirit of the Bastard matched well with Elinor’s attitude and added to the play’s emphasis on strong women, but I was concerned at the Bastard’s lack of physical prowess – would she really be able to cut her way through a mass of soldiers? – and the added element of sexual attraction between her and John didn’t help the play at all as far as I was concerned. It might have worked better for me if they’d simply had Pippa playing the Bastard as a man, but perhaps not. Either way, they feminised the language, and although this interpretation conflicts with historical reality, not to mention the text, at least Pippa had one of the clearer deliveries of the evening and her high energy levels helped to keep me awake for most of the performance.

Lady Falconbridge, the Bastard’s mother, arrived by motorbike; for a brief moment I thought it might actually be coming onto the stage, it was so close, but in the end it was just the lady herself in her leathers, and good fun it was too. Then the action moved to the French court, where we met Austria, Arthur and Constance, as well as the French king and the Dauphin. This was where the dialogue started to lose clarity, and although I got the gist I was beginning to miss more than I heard. Added to this problem was the dreadful blocking. From the post-show we learned that the director didn’t bother blocking the scenes. From experience I can safely say that if they don’t block, they will block, and badly too. The effect of this was to cut our view and muffle the sound so that we might as well have been in another theatre for all that we could tell of the performance at times. Not the RSC’s finest hour, and something that could and should be addressed.

I was aware that Constance advised the French king to wait for the ambassador to return before attacking the English-held city in front of them, just in case, only for the ambassador to turn up a few moments later to warn of the impending arrival of the English army. And indeed they did turn up almost immediately, and settled down to a long war of words. At one point, King John made as if to put the coronet on Arthur’s head, but again snatched it away at the last moment and placed it back on his own. Constance, played by Susie Trayling, was another strong performance and also very clear, and I enjoyed the bickering between her and Elinor very much. Elinor produced a will which Constance grabbed, tore and scrunched up before throwing the bits away – I only mention this because there was a lot of that in this production, paper being ripped and/or scrunched up and tossed to one side, leading to an accumulation of debris.

The citizens of Angiers (for so it was, according to the text) appeared around the stage on the first balcony level while John and Phillip made their speeches asking for their support. Two microphones on stands were brought forward, and John did his speech first, followed by Phillip. It was a bit like a reality kingship game show, with the final choice going to the public vote, but there was a twist in this case. Not happy with the citizens’ indecision, and prompted by the Bastard’s fighting talk, Phillip and John agreed to join forces temporarily to destroy Angiers and carry on their own battle afterwards. Only the quick wits of the Angiers delegation prevented this, with their suggestion that Louis the Dauphin should marry Blanche, John’s niece.

The deliberations following this suggestion were nicely done, as far as I could see. Elinor was happy that the union would strengthen John’s claim to the throne, and encouraged him by a look to add Anjou to Blanche’s dowry. She wasn’t so happy about the thirty thousand marks John threw in as well, though. The actual contributions by Louis and Blanche themselves were largely hidden from my view and I couldn’t tell from the delivery what was going on, but it certainly seemed to be the clumsiest wooing ever by a long way. Since Constance wasn’t around to shove her oar in, and only the Bastard was unhappy that the fighting was over before it had begun, they went straight into the wedding ceremony.

Blanche put on her fancy togs at the top of the stairs – 50s pink skirt, socks, high heels – but I couldn’t see what Louis was doing. The microphones were cleared away, and the party began. With the two courts posed together on the steps, the Bastard took a photo, and then the courts froze while the Bastard talked us through the commodity speech – a long time for some of the cast to hold their poses.

After the speech, the action started up again with music and dancing, including a karaoke number from John. He brought a microphone back on and used that – cries of ‘speech’ from the others – but instead he went into an old number, I forget which, and with the rest of the cast joining in it all became a bit rowdy. John even took the microphone off the stand and was holding it out for the audience to sing along. Blanche took the microphone herself and had a go, and then the bride and groom said their vows followed by another slow dance between them which turned into a Dirty Dancing number. With much hilarity, the couple left the stage followed by the rest of the partygoers, leaving an empty stage for Constance to have a rant on. Arthur and Salisbury were there too, of course, but it’s Constance’s big number, and she did it very well. The contrast with the upbeat, high energy party scene was very effective, even more so when the revellers came back on, still in party mode but with extra hats, tinsel and the like. They stopped when they saw Constance, and it was an awkward moment.

The bickering continued, especially between Constance and the king of France, and only stopped when the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, arrived on the upper balcony. Another female version, this Pandulph was played by Paola Dionisotti in a white shirt and smart black trouser suit (well, she is Italian). John’s defiance of the Pope’s instructions (to release the Pope’s chosen Archbishop of Canterbury) led to Pandulph excommunicating him, and the pressure was on Phillip once again to go to war with England. Despite a crafty attempt to manoeuvre the legate into providing a third option, Phillip was faced with the stark choice of being excommunicated himself or fighting John. I’m not sure if the contrasting arguments of Constance and Blanche were cut; if not, they didn’t make much of an impact on me, though I was vaguely aware that Blanche had a difficult choice to make. I assume she went with Louis; again, it wasn’t clear to me.

The next scene had the Bastard coming on stage with a big bag from which she took the head of Austria. She placed the head near the front of the stage, and then the king turned up with young Arthur. Normally Hubert pops up as well at this point, but to save confusing the audience (the other choices were straightforward, were they?) the Bastard took on this role as well. (We women are just so good at multi-tasking.) King John asked the Bastard to take care of Arthur, and a short while later he made it clear exactly what ‘take care of’ meant. Like Richard III, he wants the only other contender for the throne removed before there’s any more trouble. The Bastard was very willing, and agreed immediately out of loyalty to the king rather than any great desire to kill children.

It was during the next scene, which according to my text has a debate among Phillip, Louis, Constance and Pandulph, that I started to lose consciousness. Despite Constance having anger in her grief, she does go on a bit and the later reaches of this scene, after Constance had left, are mostly blank. Apparently Pandulph worked on Louis to make him desire the English throne for himself, through his marriage to Blanche, and we would see the consequences of that later on. For now, it was peaceful slumber, and although I was aware of the change of scene to the Bastard (as Hubert) and Arthur, I have no clear recollection of that either. The fast pace of the start had given way to a gentle lull, and either I was more tired than I realised (possible) or the performance hadn’t engaged me as much as I would wish (also possible). Either way, I soon had a chance to stand up, move around and wake myself up for the second half, as the Bastard’s inability to kill the little boy was followed by the interval.

The second half opened with another song from the Bastard – don’t know this one either – and then the balloons were freed and the paper confetti released to smother the stage in a wild celebratory gesture. Only there was just John and two lords on the stage, and the whole effect was of a damp squib. The balloons went everywhere, and had to be kicked out of the way from time to time, but for once I didn’t mind – the effect was worth it.

The political bickering continued, then the Bastard reported that Arthur was dead. This news was not well received by the lords, and John became very unhappy with the Bastard for following his orders. I didn’t get all of this bit, and the next scene was no better. Arthur was on the ramparts of the castle, edging steadily along a dangerous wall on top of the steps. As he jumped off the stairs, falling behind them, a dummy was dropped in front of the steps to represent the dead body. This was what the lords found, and the Bastard, having told the king that Arthur was still alive, had to contend with the awkward reality of the boy’s body. This section also wasn’t fully clear to me, and the text is no help either, as Hubert and the Bastard are both present in this scene and have a long dialogue together. I assume this was truncated to a soliloquy, but don’t quote me.

With the French already on English soil, John had to swallow his pride and bow to Rome’s authority. For his third coronation, John was practically naked, and prostrated himself before Pandulph, who then gave him his crown again, just as the English lords were about to join with the Dauphin and support his challenge for the kingship. Pandulph then arrived to send Louis packing, but found it harder than expected to control the Dauphin’s actions. The King was taken ill, and the English lords, warned of the Dauphin’s intended treachery towards them, changed allegiance again. Too late; John died, his son became king, end of play.

There were some good performances in amongst all this, but with the unclear dialogue and resulting loss of the storyline, I couldn’t really get into this version of the play. We’re seeing it again later in the run; perhaps we’ll enjoy it more, perhaps not.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me