In Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Head Over Heels," The Medium Is The Message

Sep 1, 2015

When exactly does Jeff Whitty’s musical, Head over Heels, start? When the Fool’s song threatens violence to those who neglect to turn off cell phones? When the actors trickle down the aisles, chatting up the audience? When the Fool introduces each character and riffs on genre?  

Directors of traditional plays often orchestrate such soft beginnings, inviting us to bend our minds around that in-between space ruled neither by the world we left outside the theatre nor by the dramatic structure of the play yet to come. But Head over Heels, romping through its world premiere this season in the Elizabethan Theatre, is anything but traditional. The circumstances of its conception are bizarre—a hot date between a 1580’s romantic narrative and the pop songbook of a 1980’s all-female band, the Go-Gos. Its prolonged liminal opening is written into the script, urging us to abandon boundaries, classic structure, or, heaven forbid, the pretense of realism. Indeed, following the play’s uncertain beginning, anything goes, right up to the infinite regress that prevents its end.

The live music and Sonya Tayeh's choreography reinforce the heartbeat at the show's center.

  On the surface, Head over Heels foregoes any effort to imitate life in favor of celebrating theatre. Loren Shaw’s resplendent costumes conjure a rainbow led by chartreuse. The live music and Sonya Tayeh’s choreography reinforce the heartbeat at the show’s center. Whitty’s dialogue delivers the most ordinary content with multi-syllabic grandiloquence. Similar ironies lurk in the discrepancies between the onstage action and the lyrics of the Go-Go’s pre-existing songs. One character bleeds out from a stab wound, for example, while his lover laments the disruption of best-laid plans.

Whitty’s action quotes the history of drama from Sophocles to Sondheim, with countless bows to Shakespeare. To get things rolling, King Basilius (Michael Sharon) consults an Oracle (Michele
Mais), cousin to the Witch in Into the Woods, who intones four disturbing prophecies. Basilius will lose his throne; his widely courted daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) will lose her innocence but never marry; his neglected daughter Philoclea (Tala Ashe) will marry without his approval; and he and Queen Gynecia (Miriam Laube) will both commit adultery. Emulating Oedipus, Basilius thinks to escape his fate through relocation, thereby commencing its fulfillment.

Philanax (John Tufts) is intrigued with Pamela's (Bonnie Milligan) "vexedness."
Credit Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

He and his household trot into the forest. Thanks to Shakespeare and company, we all know what happens in forests. The clothes come off, the hair comes down, and a shepherd, Mucidorus (Dylan Paul), cross-dressed (barely) as an Amazon, becomes the object of everyone’s desire. Pamela, whose poetry laced with double-entendre draws her unwittingly out of the closet, thinks he is female, as does Basilius, who flaunts a well-turned calf. Gynecia happens to have visual proof he’s male while Philoclea, the woman he loves, makes the pleasant discovery when he simply removes his diadem at the end of Act I.

In Act II, the King and the Queen send Mucidorus love letters arranging an assignation. Mucidorus redelivers them to the Queen and the King, thus setting up a no-holds-barred bed trick. The King, furious that the “game has spun from …[his] control,” comes after the poor shepherd and stabs him. It seems that just as the Fool (John Tufts) predicted, the play required “the death of a leading romantic character.”

The Oracle’s initial command to the King was Keep it Real. The actors play variations on this instruction. Sharon roots Basilius in melodrama: he’s a villainous cad and he knows it. If melodrama featured spoiled brats, Milligan’s Pamela would fit that sub-genre. It turns out though there’s a reason for her impervious narcissism—the lie she’s living of heterosexuality. Rejection by the Amazon provokes a tantrum of global proportions, which she bills as showing her “vulnerable side,” but her lady-in-waiting Mopsa (the sparkling Britney Simpson) grabs her on the rebound. Henceforth part of an item, Pamela will begin to show her more variegated human side.

Laube’s Queen plays it real from the start. Craving the “wild abandon” of love, she’s stifled in her marriage to the patriarchal Basilius, who prefers efficiency. The only way she can think of to protect her younger daughter Philoclea from a similarly disappointing union is to direct her down the convent route. As Philoclea, the lovely Ashe practically steals the show with her unquestioning belief in her own plainness and her sister’s charisma. She accepts the crumbs of affirmation from her family as if they offered a banquet. Her anxiety and nausea upon hearing of her parents’ unwitting tryst is plain hilarious—she keeps trying to conjure an image of “rushing water” to drown that of the primal scene.

As Pamela softens, Philoclea gets tough. In the midst of sexual chaos, she announces that she’s going to talk now, delivering a sweet little sermon in support of love. It’s not enough to prevent the “tragic consequences” of the King’s obsessive control, but it does prompt her mother to shed her passivity and take the helm. And in the end, the Fool is wrong about romance, at least this one—well, at least for everyone but him. While the play erupts at the end in torrents of rambunctious joy, the Fool heads out of Arcadia, carrying his secret love for Philoclea in his heart. Tufts’s odd-man-out has won our affection and admiration for stage-managing this theatrical journey and bringing it home. Now he must “fashion home” from the open road.

In Head over Heels, the medium is the message. The disruptive, free-wheeling form amplifies its paean to unrestricted love—to hell with gender or social class—and finally induces us to “embrace the magic of the universe lest logic interrupt discovery.”

Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)