How can you know what you want till you get what you want and you see if you like it?

On Christmas day, me and my vaguely Jewish family* joined the stereotype and, before our large dinner of Chinese food, went to the movies. Of course, being theatre dorks, there really was only one choice of film for the day. My mom wanted to see Meryl Streep, and I was dying to see pretty much everything about Into the Woods, so off we went.

My social media feed has since exploded with folks who saw it and their opinions of it. It’s kind of inevitable when you’re friends with a lot of theatre-types (many of whom are professionals and/or academics). For the most part, people have positive things to say about the experience with the occasional hater mixed in for good measure.

For my part?   Haters gonna hate (…hate hate hate hate), but you just shake it off, Stephen Sondheim.

Into the Woods was a great film adaptation of a tricky complex story. The beauty of the play is in its tightness; the multitudes of tales that become inevitably intertwined by the greater dramatic events of Sondheim’s allegory. Director Rob Marshall and script/screenplay writer James Lapine did a masterful job of cutting the sometimes unwieldy piece into a slim two-hour film version that translated into the film medium with grace. Think about the scope of Into the Woods for a moment: you’ve got giants attacking townships, you’ve got birds pecking out peoples’ eyes, you’ve got cows dying and subsequently coming back to life who need to be milked onstage (and need to be able to eat props), you’ve got a character who needs to be cut open so that two other characters can come out of his belly, you’ve got a magic talking tree that showers gold and jewels and fashion onto a main character, you’ve got beanstalks growing, palaces thriving, balls balling, and markets selling. The show itself is cinematic in scale, and that’s even before you talk about taking it to the movies.

Film allowed Into the Woods to be its delightful self: quirky, magical, spectacular, and (yes) dark.

In the woods, you may encounter a Brussels Sprouts Swashbuckler who looks suspiciously like me.... alright, look, they shouldn't put weapon-shaped food on the shelves if they don't want people to fence with it, okay?

In the woods, you may encounter a Brussels Sprouts Swashbuckler who looks suspiciously like me…. alright, look, they shouldn’t put weapon-shaped food on the shelves if they don’t want people to fence with it, okay?

Now to the comment that the film was inevitably “Disneyfied”. Come on, people, what did you expect? You really think that a film being billed as a “mish-mosh of cute little fairy tales” would confront the reality of Sondheim’s allegory? Yes, “Hello, Little Girl” was a stranger danger song with no consequences beyond being followed home and eaten, and “I Know things Now” didn’t have the connotations of a sexual awakening. The Little Red plotline was kept very literal, at least on the surface. But let’s get real. Little Red Riding Hood is a story that bears the cultural burden of sexuality and has for hundreds of years; I hardly think that one film adaptation can undo all of that history. Besides which, the film doesn’t run from Sondheim’s lyrics. If you listen, even for a moment, the allegory is still there. The wolf still makes Red “feel excited… Well, excited and scared” and she still ponders “though scary is exciting, nice is different than good”. Johnny Depp as the wolf is slimy enough that I was made uncomfortable. I personally think that the sequence worked on a level innocent enough for kids, but dark enough for the adults looking for something more.

I’ve seen a lot of hubbub about the play being feminist or anti-feminist. I would like to remind audiences that this play isn’t new news. It debuted in 1986. If you want to have a discussion about what is/is not “feminist”, you need to go back and take a look at what else was being performed and/or talked about in that year, not this one. Moreover, the capable female characters who drive the plot can hardly be called “damsels”. Yes, Cinderella is a character in the play and yes, she still has a love story with a semi-disinterested Prince Charming who stands for all things machismo…. But this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Again, I refer you to the long history of the Cinderella myth and the myriad of popular culture icons and tales which have been produced about and around it. Sondheim’s Cindy is kind, driven, and determined; all of which are salient qualities which prove invaluable to her as she deftly navigates the woods. Let’s not forget that she leaves her “perfect happy ending” because she finds out that her husband has cheated on her and that she chooses to do this despite the fact that her life will be monumentally more difficult without the Prince’s wealth and power to back her.

Musically, I think the film lends more clarity to Sondheim’s complicated lyrics than any stage play I’ve ever seen. Because of the magic of cinema, every single word of these often tongue-twistered songs was crystalline (I finally understood a portion of the witch’s rap that, despite years of trying, I had not yet gotten… who knew that “rampion” was an edible root?). Because the filmmakers were able to slow down some of the thicker passages, they read much more readily to the waiting ear. If historically you’ve taken issue with Sondheim’s music, I’d strongly recommend giving this film a shot; I think it will clear up a lot for you (and perhaps be able to provide a gateway to some of his other work).

By far my favorite portion of the film was “Agony”. Film as a medium just lends itself much more readily to satiric melodrama than stage. Which is not to say it’s impossible to pull off on the stage, just slightly more difficult. Anyway, I was in stitches the entire number and it’s well worth the price of a ticket to see two handsome princes compete for audience attention amidst a slew of water effects. I was slightly sad they cut the reprise because the number was so good that I wanted them to do it again.

There were, I will say, a surprising number of children in the audience. Let me reiterate that while this film is based on fairy tales, it is not a children’s movie to any extent. It deals with heavy and dark topics (rape, murder, infidelity, body mutilation…), and has big scary man-crushing giants. Your young children will be bored and/or scared, and will spend the entire film kicking the back of someone’s seat while you sit there pondering what, exactly, it was that you thought you were getting into.

Really all I can say about the experience is, to quote the witch, “Go to the Woods!”. Just leave small children at home. And don’t expect something the play didn’t give you; that’s just not fair.

 

*We’re cultural Jews rather than folks with any particular religious bent.

Much Ado about Joss

So I finally got around to seeing Joss’ Much Ado last night.

I had some deep hesitations about it after having seen some clips of Joss talking about the script.  I am a HUGE devotee to Wheedon’s work and I adore most of his actors, but wasn’t sure that A) he had an understanding of the text deep enough to serve this project (this concern was primarily founded on his remark about the only way to explain the characters’ actions through the tale is via rampant drinking); B) Much Ado could really be slotted in to the short time-span famously available to this project; and C) Amy Acker had the chops to play Beatrice.

On the whole, I was right.

The film began slow and dark and there’s no reason Much Ado should be that

A shot I got of a friend's Italian mask.  It just seemed to fit here.

A shot I got of a friend’s Italian mask. It just seemed to fit here.

way – the show, like all Shakespeare (especially the comedies) is fast-paced and driving.  Especially when cuts are made (and Joss made some cuts, most of them graceful but a few of them clunky), things should progress at a good clip with a lot of energy.  The actors didn’t seem to find that energy or comfort level with their characters until the gulling scenes deep in Act II/at the beginning of Act III.  For that, the gulling of Benedick is one of the best I’ve ever seen onstage or screen and that really served as a springboard off which the movie flew.  The second half was markedly better and the actors seemed much more at ease with the text, the project, and each other.

Amy Acker was a lackluster Beatrice who seemed more fragile than feisty and more brooding than “born to speak all mirth”.  Alexis Denisof as Benedick had his moments of brilliance, which generally served to eclipse the moments during which he was far too low-energy and ominous.  Sean Maher was a brilliant Don John (it’s not his fault that I can’t hear anyone say the words “I thank you… I am of few words, but I thank you” without thinking it in Keanu’s voice).

Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry was problematic.  Things seemed to fall in for him during Act V, but until then his performance lacked a certain crucial justification.  Dogberry is a difficult character to play; much like Elbow from Measure for Measure this character type (the “learned” constable who’s actually a common man clown but tries so hard to be of good breeding that his speech comes out word salad) is one that doesn’t resonate horribly well with modern audiences.  There needs to be a reason for Dogberry’s confusion.  He’s not stupid, his logic just doesn’t match our earth logic.  The most successful Dogberry I’ve ever seen played the character as someone who had maybe been hit on the head one too many times or dropped in several instances as an infant.  This issue, may I point out, is one that a good dramaturge can really help with.  This kind of textual diagnosis takes experience to suss out and someone who is already intimate with the text can save you weeks of rehearsal discovery time by giving you the parameters Shakespeare himself set.  Especially in an environment like the one which produced Wheedon’s film, the dramaturge can be an invaluable resource to the project.

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think that Hero is an unplayable character.  This is nothing against the Heroes I’ve seen recently (most of which have had some talent and understanding of the text), but the best Hero I ever saw was actually played by a dress-maker’s dummy.  No joke.  She’s so silent most of the time and, essentially, an object to the men around her.  Playing the part with enough pizazz to make her likeable (especially when most of her already few lines are cut, as in Wheedon’s film) requires some spark that I just haven’t seen yet.  Unfortunately, the audience liking Hero is central to us buying in to the main plot arc.  For the most part, we like Hero because Beatrice likes Hero rather than Hero being a likeable character.  Which is not to say we dislike Hero, just that she’s more sweet and plain than a nilla wafer.

So I didn’t dislike Joss’ film, it just won’t go into my books as the PARAMOUR OF MUCH ADOs.  On the whole, I see it as a fine case study in reasons to hire a dramaturge and what happens when a project is rushed.  I think Wheedon fans will enjoy it, and Shakespeareans will find it a good excuse to sit in an air-conditioned theatre on a disgusting summer day.

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

Over the weekend, I had the good fortune to work on Malarkey Films’ entry into Boston’s 48 hour film festival.  Without giving too much away, I can tell you this: our movie was an action movie fairy tale, there was a copious amount of violence in it, and I played a rapier-wielding fairy princess.

I believe I’ve previously expressed the oddness of returning to acting.  I had well and truly

working out a sequence with the fight director

working out a sequence with the fight director

thought that the portion of my life as a performer was over indefinitely and was slowly coming to the realization that that may be okay.  For that, over the course of this year I’ve been hard at work as an actor, combatant, and general theatre-maker.

And I must admit that it’s been much more fun than I could have hoped.  Being back in the theatre is extremely nurturing to my work and my little artist’s heart is lifted every time I get the chance to work on a project.

This project in particular was a challenge on several levels: first off physically.  It’s been a few years since I’ve done any serious fight work (and this was serious fight work).  We were on location shooting for nine hours, the bulk of that entailed either learning or performing choreography.  Despite it being May, New England hasn’t quite gotten the “it’s Spring!” memo yet so the last few hours of our day turned much colder than what was truly optimal given the costuming I was wearing (though admittedly I was one of the more covered-up ladies in the entourage).  Eventually, mental and physical fatigue just won over and to have that happen right when the weather started turning towards “not so comfortable anymore” was extremely disruptive to my groove.

Since this was a film, we were also shooting the story in not-necessarily-chronological pieces.  Which meant that one of the last shots we got was one of the first shots in the film.  Which meant that, despite being tired and cold, we had to muster the energy to be glowingly happy.  It also means that I have a sneaking suspicion that my hair is going to look all kinds of strange in the opening scenes since they were shot after I had spent the day rolling around in forest foliage fighting for my life.

performing part of our badassery; the dress was surprisingly easy to fight in

performing part of our badassery; the dress was surprisingly easy to fight in

…hilarity also ensued when a grappling sequence meant that the DP, sound guy, and my fight partner were stuck picking leaves out of my hair for a good three minutes before and after every take of this phrase of our fight.

Another specific challenge with a film is the speed with which it requires committing dialogue to memory.  In this instance, the writer was also the fight director and so was on set for the entirety of the shoot and gave us leave to adjust as necessary (with the exception of the one line which we were required to include as part of the parameters of the film festival…which of course happened to be my line).  Short term memory is a funny and amazing thing and mine was well exercised over the course of Saturday.  For that, it’s strange for a Shakespearean like myself to feel comfortable with adjusting dialogue to suit my own needs.  The vast majority of my experience treats the text as doctrine: changing it is sacrosanct.  Film, however, is a medium entirely different from stage and this was just one of the things that I had to accept and move on.

The finished product should be available on Malarkey’s website by week’s end.  I have to say, I’m extremely excited to be seeing it on the big screen tomorrow.  If nothing else, it was a welcome break from finals-writing.

For those keeping track, my last paper of coursework is due tomorrow.  During the afternoon, I’ll be at Tufts speaking at the Graduate Research Symposium in the 2PM time slot if you happen to be around and want to hear about my work for ten minutes.

…just keep swimming.

Is This the Beginning of Zombie Shakespeare?

I just got done with a dramaturgy session with my director for Measure for Measure (the show I’m dramaturging this year at Tufts and keep promising to fill you in on).  During the drive home, I was all prepared to write a nice long post about the process, how things are going, what a dramaturge actually does, etc.

…but then one of my friends posted this trailer on my facebook wall which clearly made it all but impossible to do anything but comment upon it.

I’m so egregiously excited that I’m having trouble formulating words.  Zombies?  Hamlet?  Spoof movies?  These are a few of my favorite things.  Add chocolate peanut butter, yarn, and shopping and you’d have a giant ball of Dani-crack.

I will begin with the following confession: I have seen nothing more about this film than this trailer.  I’ve done a small amount of research just to try and ground myself in some film-facts and figure out when it will be released to the general public (no answer as of now, by the way, much to my chagrin and dissatisfaction).

But based on what I’ve seen, I couldn’t be more excited if I tried.  A movie that deals with Shakespeare reverently but playfully?  A movie that makes fun of itself while simultaneously touting some good old fashioned Shakespearean values?  A movie that has the potential to be one of the most hilarious Shakes-scene of our times?

The film’s basic premise is that a group of indie film-makers want to make a version of Hamlet but lack the budget for a Kenneth Brannaugh-esque period piece.  Jokingly, they say the only thing they could make on their given budget is a B zombie film… so they solve their problem with a creative re-mix of both.  Midway through, their backer is found dead and so they become enrapt in a plot to cover up her death to ensure a green light for their film.  I’m sure that this causes plenty of outside complications as well, but I’m less concerned about those at the moment.

With the prospect of a zombie Hamlet, My mind immediately jumped to the possibility of the Norwegians being zombies led by a sort of lich-lord Fortinbras.  Denmark could almost literally become a prison due to high security measures set in place in order to prevent further zombie invasions and, upon the collapse of the court at the end, the zombie masses enter to find the corpses of the Denmarkian royalty.

The inclusion of zombies also problematizes death within the play.  What kind of outbreak are we dealing with?  Runners or Shamblers?  Nanovirus or witch doctors?  If nanovirus, then Claudius could well be made into an arch-villain having infected King Hamlet with the virus and making him patient zero of the outbreak.  Hamlet’s ghost could instead be a return of the shambling King as a sort of covert super-zombie come to wreck revenge upon the individual responsible for the attack.  If Witch Doctor induced, there could still be a measure of this creation-against-creator as King Hamlet would be unable to lift a hand against his Lord and Master now-King Cladius and thus must have his son act as agent.  Alternately, in a world where zombies are created by magic, ghosts become equally plausible.  King Hamlet could be a sort of revenant, requiring a flesh body to perform deeds upon the living and thus spurring his son to the task.

 This also complicates Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, as when he hears a rustling in the curtains of his mother’s bedchamber he could potentially believe it to be an undead foe and, thereby, shoot said foe in the head before it leapt out to attack.  Polonius becomes an unfortunate victim of the country’s political strife as opposed to the sacrificial lamb of Hamlet’s madness.

Ophelia’s death is similarly complicated, and the possibilities innate in a zombie-infested Denmark make richer her last scene in which she appears onstage having run mad.  Perhaps she has been bitten by her risen-from-the-dead father and her not-quite-a-zombie-yet fever is the cause of her madness.  Alternately, anyone can go crazy in the world of the zombie holocaust.  The uncaniness of the walking dead and the permeation of casual death into society will just do that to a person.

Also; what does this mean for Act V?  Does the royal court lay dead at the feet of the zombie invaders only to rise themselves as mindless brain-nommers?  Is Horatio the only human left alive in a world now peopled by the walking dead?

Since the film isn’t actually a zombie version of Hamlet but rather about the making of a zombie Hamlet, I don’t truly expect my questions to be answered.  I do, however, very much look forward to seeing it and firmly believe that I will have found a new go-to “bad day” movie.

…and if anyone has the money and inclination to actually direct a production of Hamlet set

“…Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”

during the zombie holocaust, please oh please oh please hire me.  I’ll do anything to be involved in that production.  I’ll even put myself on your line and audition to be a piece of meat… I mean… actor.  But mostly, I want to find a reason to have to research what kind of duel you would possibly be able to stage while the zombie hoards were shambling at your door.  Pistols won’t cut it due to the multiple touches, but I could definitely see claymores or battleaxes coming in handy and thereby the Princes being versed in their usage… or maybe bludgeoning weapons are the way to go since cricket bats are definitely a staple of the zombie genre.  That, however, would complicate the poison premise, but we could maybe make it work somehow…

Timoncrantz and Pumbastern are Dead

Along a similar vein as last week’s post…

I recorded the talk that I gave at the Comparative Drama Conference this past weekend.  In case you didn’t catch my panel, I have uploaded the talk here for your convenient listening.

Please excuse my copious abuse of the speech disfluency “um” (especially at the beginning of the talk).  I’m fairly certain that the only reason I was able to even stand during the presentation was by sheer force of will and the amount of antibiotics coursing through my veins at the time.  Take that particular element of the presentation as a good example of what not to do when giving a talk.

Enjoy!

Fishing for Answers

Well folks, I’m back.

It was a very nice vacation (if a little bit long) and I have a great deal to say about it.  Most of these things can be caught in the upcoming series of podcasts from yours truly and my magnificently intelligent brother.  The first should be released by the end of the week, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, while I was soaking up ALL THE DISNEY, something occurred to me.

We were walking through the Magic Kingdom when we encountered certain princes and Princesses posing for pictures (say that ten times fast).  As we walked past Ariel and Eric, we realized something.

We know that Eric is a Prince, but what (precisely) is he Prince of?

It didn’t feel like something we could walk right up and ask him… that seems petulant at best and sacrilegious at worst.  At the same time, we well and truly wondered if this whole “marry a prince” thing wasn’t even more of a sham in his case than usual.  I mean, after all, Ariel is the most gullible and least savvy of all the Disney princesses.  It would be pretty easy to convince her that one was a prince with some impressive architecture, a personalized statue, and a French chef.

To our relief, a google search provided the required answer: apparently the events of The Little Mermaid supposedly transpire in Denmark.

I’m certain you know where my mind ran with this tidbit.  I mean, it’s not like Danish Princes run around rampant in the world… clearly they are all the same mythological person.

So this could go one of two ways… either Eric is King Hamlet, or Eric is Prince Hamlet.

We don’t know much of anything about King Hamlet’s parentage or his youth.  Eric is allegedly eighteen during the events of the film, which would answer a great deal of questions about Hamlet Sr’s childhood.  Eric’s parents are conspicuously missing from the film, again consistent with the Hamlet mythology.

Okay, for this to really make sense, we would have to make the concession that Ariel changed her name at some point… but is this horribly difficult to believe?  Maybe “Gertrude” was her middle name which she then chose to go by in her land-life.  And Gertrude’s affinity for Ophelia would be easily explained if Gertrude were a mermaid.  Ophelia is the most watery character in all of Shakespeare, after all.

But this doesn’t take into account the ending of the fairy tale.  Yes, of course, in the Disney version everyone lives happily ever after blah blah blah.  But if you read the Hans Christian Anderson tale, things conclude a little differently.  In the original tale, the Little Mermaid becomes human because she is told that humans have souls and can thus live forever even after they die.  Mermaids, on the other hand, disintegrate into sea foam upon death.  The nameless Little Mermaid strives to become human so that she too may obtain eternal life instead of waft into watery nothings.  She buys a potion from the Sea Witch which will give her legs and make her dance unlike any human has ever danced, but will also make her feel as though with each step she is treading upon swords.  In addition, she may only become truly human by marrying the Prince and thus obtaining half of his soul.  If she fails to do this, then the morning after the Prince marries someone else the mermaid will melt into sea foam anyway.

Long story short, the prince marries someone else and that night the mermaid is brought a special sea witch knife by her sisters.  They say that if she uses the knife to kill the prince and allow his blood to fall upon her feet, she will become a mermaid again and not melt into seafoam in the morning.

Instead, the Little Mermaid throws herself out the window into the sea and becomes seafoam and air.  She is then given the opportunity to do good deeds and thus enter human heaven.

Okay, so Prince Eric winds up not marrying a crazy chick who drowns herself for his love?

This story doesn’t sound familiar at all.  Nope.  Especially not in relation to Danish Princes.

Yes, I know The Lion King is suppose to be the Disney Hamlet (almost painfully at this point having spent a whole semester working on a paper about it), but sometimes you just have to follow the evidence.  And in this case, I think we can say with some degree of certainty that Eric should either be haunting Danish battlements with his ghostly steps, or stabbing his manservant behind an arras.

I’m not horribly picky about which one.

A Half-hearted Attempt at Entering the Authorship Debate

So I saw “Anonymous” this weekend.

I’m not going to lie and say that I tried to be objective going into this film.  I

De Vere and Shakespeare

didn’t.  I walked in ready to hate every molecule of every bit of every piece of it.  I walked in ready for a fight; armed with my rapier/quill of righteousness and my shield of Bardic faith.  I walked in and plonked myself in that seat as a professional obligation; knowing that I had to see this for the good of those around me and as an educational experience to enrich my own knowledge of current events in my field.

The movie opens with a framing device.  Derek Jacobi is late to a lecture in New York City.  We follow him through the streets as he gets out of his cab and enters the theatre, then immediately hops onstage to begin his story.  The theatre in which he lectures is a giant, sumptuous, velvet-decked place of mythos (a Broadway house like that would never be given over for a lecture on Shakespeare).  The lecture sequence is filmed from the perspective of the house (though with a few close-up shots of Jacobi’s face) giving us the feeling of sitting in that theatre, listening to that story.  Jacobi presents the pre-cursor to Oxfordian evidence with a straight face and a charming accent (of course, in a situation where there is no one to defend the evidence it seems to pile against our beloved playwright).  His last words before we cut to the first internally nested loop are “what if there was another story?”

Ben Jonson, England's first poet Laureate and compiler of the First Folio

Cut to Ben Johnson taking refuge in the trap door of the Globe theatre with a pile of manuscripts as he hides from a pursuing armed guard.  Unable to find Johnson, they torch the theatre.  Johnson is eventually captured and detained for questioning and we cut to another flashback.

The plot evolves this way in layers, too transparent and insubstantial to truly determine where in time (and sometimes place) one is in the story.  At one point, we find ourselves inside a play within a flashback of a flashback of a flashback of a framing device.

A second problem lies in the lack of clearly differentiated characters.  For the most part, the Earls and Noblemen are interchangeable… except when they’re not.  The problem there, of course, is how do you tell apart someone who hasn’t been saliently understood to begin with?  The lack of characterization leads to a lack of caring and that lack of caring leads to a disengagement with the over-arching plot (or plots, in this case).  Fine politics becomes impossible to follow when all noblemen are created equal.

I went in expecting the screenwriter to play fast and loose with history (which he did).  I was surprised by the amount of historical events which he managed to conflate within the film (of course, the actual timeline of history was completely and utterly altered, but who cares for the space-time continuum?).  The burning of the Globe (actually June 29, 1613), the Essex rebellion (actually 1601), the publishing of Venus and Adonis (actually circa 1593), the death of Christopher Marlowe (actually May 30, 1593), and the writing of Shakespeare’s plays themselves set forty years before the main events of the film (actually sometime between circa 1589-1613) are just a few instances of the incredible shifting timeline which John Orloff weaves.

There were a few cute nods built in (like the inclusion of famous portraiture in the backgrounds of scenes, often these portraits depicted the historical individuals whom the foregrounded actors were also playing, or the almost-requisite autograph scene in which De Vere attempts to figure out how to sign his name as “William Shakespeare” of course playing upon the signature theme which I was going to say that I have previously explained on this blog, but then realized that it was via a lengthy facebook post… so see the footnote to this post for it*).  And I must admit, it is refreshing to hear a new explanation for the dedication of Venus and Adonis.  Also the film does include one of the greatest portrayals of James I that I have ever seen.  Ever.

But on the whole, the movie was an apathy-fest.  I had trouble caring about the film, I had trouble wanting to care about the film, and I almost felt bad for the film.  Far from being the tour-de-force attack that the scholarship community has built this movie into, it is a flimsy film which simply won’t hold up under the light of scrutiny.  If someone truly tried to pick this apart, it would simply dissolve into a heap of dust.

To most scholars, the most troubling part of the entire “Anonymous” fiasco

Of course... if the Doctor had actually managed to be there, we could solve this whole darn authorship debate. What I wouldn't give for a TARDIS.

was the simultaneous release of lesson plans for schools.  That absolutely baffles me.  After seeing the film, I am convinced that you may as well teach “The Matrix” at a Computer Science program.  There are films which have been made, meticulously researched, and could be used to teach Shakespeare (“Shakespeare in Love”, I’m looking at you).  I think our greatest fear was that “Anonymous” would be one of them.  After having seen it, I can say with certainty that our fears on this account were ungrounded.  Any film which depicts Ben Jonson as a struggling writer unable to make worthwhile prose can dive into the depths of the circular file and hide under my yogurt lids.

In fact, I’d almost like to hear someone defend this film.  How can you justify something like this?  Not because of the ideas it disseminates, but because of its sheer sloppiness…

So go on.  Try to hold this up as historical fact.  I dare you.

*William Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare and baptized April 26, 1564. The church records the spelling of his name (both at that time, as well as upon his burial and the burial of his children) to be “Shakspere”. Early Modern Spelling is a fluid matter really, so this could (or could not) be evidence of any import. The spelling “Shakespeare” is believed by some to be a “fancified” version of Shakespeare’s name to refer to the Great London Playwright as opposed to the man from Stratford and came into vogue during Shakespeare’s lifetime as the most commonly-used spelling in publications of that period. Certainly there is evidence of this in documents that we have; often when the documents were directed at William Shakespeare, the hum drum guy from Straford, the name was spelled “Shakspere” (as noted above) or “Shaksper”. We have only six surviving signatures of Shakespeare’s and almost all of them spell the name in a different way (though this is likely due to accepted legal abbreviations of the time). “Shakp”, “Shaksper”, “Shakspe”, “Shakspere”, and “Shakspeare”. As to the etymology of the name, it has been put forth that perhaps Englishmen were named after the weapons which they carried. Shakespeare’s paternal grandfather, Richard Shakespeare, was mistakenly referred to as “Richard Shakstaff” in a 1533 record (perhaps lending credence to this argument, or noting a particularly useless scribe). What is unscrupulous about all of this is that Shakespeare most definitely did not make the name up for himself, though he probably shifted the spelling of it depending on what he was doing at the time.

Much Ado About Joss

Yesterday morning, I awoke to a wonderful e-mail in my inbox.  The e-mail (from a dear friend) directed me to this link.  The day proceeded to unfold in a series of facebook postings and overall internet twitter about the project and, of course, the wonderful people in my life who recognize what a complete nerd I am and believe that I absolutely must know about this immediately.

In case you haven’t heard yet (or clicked the link above), the news has been confirmed: Joss Whedon secretly filmed a version of Much Ado About Nothing during his one-month vacation from “The Avengers”.  The film’s website (including initial press release) is located here.

Well this is an exciting move for American Shakespeare.

First things first, let’s tackle Whedon’s choice to take on a Shakespeare film adaptation.  The King of the modern Shakespeare film is without a doubt Mister Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh’s films are lush and well publicized and not lacking in technique or tradition.  Branagh is undoubtedly a pivotal part of the modern Shakespeare tradition due to the audiences he has brought to the Bard’s work.  However.  Despite the fact that well-known American actors have worked on Branagh films (Alicia Silverstone’s Princess, Kevin Kline’s Jaques, and who could forget Keanu’s Don John?), Branagh is unrelentingly an Irishman working in an Englishman’s industry.  His films, despite their popularity in the US, are certainly part of our cultural tradition though not a part of our Shakespeare tradition.

There have been American Shakespeare films before.  I am loathe to call Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet an “American Shakespeare” (even though it did star Mel Gibson and what’s more American than that besides Sam the Eagle?), but we could term Luhrman’s 1996 abomination of a film as such.  In addition, Julie Taymore has her 2010 The Tempest and her 1999 Titus, the Radford Merchant of Venice staring Al Pacino as Shylock (2004), Olivia Parker’s 1995 Othello starring Laurence Fishburne, Michael Hoffman’s 1999 Midsummer with Kevin Klein, and (historically) Max Reinhardt’s Dream of 1935.  If we think about the entire Shakespeare on Film opus, that’s a pretty puny lot that Americans have managed to produce.

I would argue that Whedon’s version will be the first modern purely American Shakespeare.  In addition to American acting and directing sensibilities, the instinct to release it via the internet (a la “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”) also brands it as a creation of contemporary American culture publicized via a globalized world.  In short; this could be huge.  This could be international.  This could be great.

And it’s an attempt by our budding Shakespeare tradition to break free from stodgy molds and create something new.

Maher as Don John. You work that suit, Simon!

Undoubtedly, Whedon’s production is going to be compared to Branagh’s ’93 film and only time (and a full review) can tell how it will hold up.  My initial impressions are better already – who wouldn’t take Sean Maher over Keanu?

Whedon’s choice in play to film is not unexpected given his canon.  He has long been attracted to strong female leads (“Buffy”, “Doll’s House”, “Firefly”), his humor is witty and quirky, and he seems particularly fascinated by soldiers and war stories.  For all of these things, Much Ado fits the bill.  I am particularly looking forward to Nathan Fillion’s performance of Dogberry and Sean Maher’s Don John (who will, with no doubt, overtake Keanu’s California surfer boy with the talent contained in his pinky finger… really, folks, it doesn’t take much to outstrip an actor with one feeling).

There are two things that makes me slightly nervous about the enterprise: one, there is no recognizable dramaturge working with Whedon.  While I don’t wish to belittle the intelligence of a man whose creativity and artistry I well respect, I will say that it is a haphazard move to work on a film of what is essentially a period piece without consulting someone who really knows what they are talking about.  To a modern director (especially someone working in film with what is traditionally a stage medium), a good dramaturge can be a godsend.  Who else is going to contextualize the piece within its historical and modern importance?  Who else is going to do the research as to what random words mean and how they should be presented?  Who else is going to deal with dimwit actors who can’t seem to find a grasp of the text?  Whedon isn’t a Shakespeare virgin, but even the best need some backup.  In an interview, Whedon confessed to some trepidation over the title “Much Ado About Nothing”.  “Well, I have nothing to say about nothing” he said.  Of course, after many re-reads of the script he realized that this title isn’t really what the play is about.  This sort of problem is precisely why you need a good dramaturge; somehow who has researched this stuff and can explain the connections.  Someone who can steer you clear of these misconceptions.  Someone who knows their Shakespeare, darnit!

My second bit of nervousness has to do with the relative inexperience of film actors with Shakespearean text.  I’m not saying that there’s no possibility of amateurs being brilliant, I’m just saying that without proper vocal and text coaching such things have proven in the past to be disastrous (just look at Leo and Claire in Luhrman’s film if you really want proof of a train wreck).

For that, I will be looking forward to seeing Wheedon’s directing style within this piece as

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick

well as a certain loyalty to the text.  Too often, hip American directors superimpose their vision and words over text which has, for hundreds of years, spoken for itself.  Whedon’s actors, while all amazing in their own right, have never struck me as the most disciplined lot.  It will be a true test of their worth to see how well they manage when a certain sort of freedom is stripped from them.  In addition, much of Whedon’s work relies upon acting between the lines; pregnant pauses, meaningful glances, physical humor unalluded to within the text of the script…  All of this must go with Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is entirely about acting on the lines.  There is no subtext in Shakespeare.  Everything you need to make a successful and entertaining production is right there.  Trusting the Bard is the only way to create a meaningful Shakespeare (lack of this, by the by, was Luhrman’s greatest failing).

If Whedon and his gang can overcome the desire to insert between Shakespeare’s text, I truly believe that this will be a film for the ages.

I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

Anonymous

Okay folks,

People keep asking so I figure I should say something before I say something.  On October 28th, this is going to be unleashed unto the world:

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an op-ed review of the film  written by Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University (prominent Shakespearean and author of a great many books  ).

Let’s take a moment to talk about the authorship debate.  The nineteenth century saw the deification of Shakespeare (debatably) at its peak.  It was during this time that scholars and literati realized that very little biographical information was available about our esteemed playwright.  Because of this dearth of fact, said literati began to suspect the actuality of William Shakespeare as author of the plays (backed by an insistence that Shakespeare only had a base-level of education and the plays were so transcendent that they must have been written by a University man).  Thus the so-called “anti-Stratfordians” were born.  In an effort to validate this conclusion, various figures have been put forth as alternative “authors” to the plays (including Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlow, and Edward De Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford).

All of these arguments have fundamental flaws (perhaps the most amusing being the fact that De Vere died in 1604, years before at least ten of Shakespeare’s plays were written).  I don’t really have the space to get into the full implications of each argument here, but I’ll be happy to divulge what I know if you buy me enough alcohol (or shoot me an e-mail and ask).

In any case, “Anonymous” falls into what is referred to as the “Oxfordian” camp (i.e. it argues that De Vere wrote the plays).

Here’s my brief opinion of the authorship debate: why are we wasting our time?  No matter how we slice it, Shakespeare (either the man from Stratford or the great playwright – whether these two are the same person or not) is dead.  Shakespeare the man from Stratford existed.  Shakespeare the playwright wrote amazing, transcendent works of literature which continue to touch upon the human soul hundreds of years after his death.  Everything else is a fairy tale.  Whomever this person was, no matter what his life was like,

sitting under the Mulberry tree in Shakespeare's garden in Stratford... my happy place

the important thing is that the plays do exist and they do continue to effect us.  Whether he planted the mulberry tree behind his property in Stratford, whether he hated his wife and ran away with the traveling players to get away from her, whether he was homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual, “he” undoubtedly left us something.  Shakespeare is more important to the modern world as a concept than a person.  We scholars can tell ourselves pretty stories about his life all we want, and back them with as many or as few facts as we can find, but the bottom line is that barring some unforeseen and incredible discovery of a cache of lost documents, we will never be able to prove definitively even a majority of what we tell ourselves.  So we may as well concede that fairy tales are nice, but the play is the thing.

Now, allow me to briefly address Shapiro’s piece.  I sympathize with Dr. Shapiro.  I am fully expecting to leave the theatres angry and frustrated that the good name of my man Will has been despoiled.  Will this keep me from seeing a movie about Will?  Absolutely not.

However.  Dr. Shapiro’s argument in this op-ed piece is perhaps born a bit too much out of the described heat of passion which I am certain will also haze my own vision in red.  Shapiro states that he is more troubled by the fact that “Anonymous” “turns great plays into propaganda” and takes great exception to the film’s point of view that “all art is political… otherwise it is just decoration”.

…well… isn’t that actually true?  I mean, there’s the famous anecdote about Elizabeth I barring any performance of Richard II by saying “know you not that I am Richard?” after

to me, Elizabeth I will always be Judi Dench

the Essex rebellion, but Elizabethan politics are written more subtly all over Shakespeare’s plays.  And not just the histories!  Love’s Labours Lost begins with the cession of Aquitaine to Naverre.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is founded upon the principle that Theseus defeated Hippolyta’s tribe of amazons.  As You Like it begins and ends in an upturned world of unjust political tyranny made right at the end by the return of the proper Duke.  The Tempest depicts a wild world of chaos organized only by true noble blood which must be forfeit to return to the courtly world of Milan.

Art is power.  And especially in Elizabethan times when plays were the most popular form of public entertainment.  Shakespeare was never shy about expressing his opinions via the theatre, and we shouldn’t be shy about saying that’s what he (whomever he was) was doing.  The canon is not just dead words, it’s imbued with a certain living history and understanding of audiences (both past and future).  And really, that’s part of why it’s still relevant.

In addition, Dr. Shapiro’s title makes me anxious.  It’s not Hollywood that’s dishonoring the Bard, it’s every anti-Stratfordian whose research led to this movie.  Yes, the film itself comes from the institution of Hollywood, but it sprang from us.  Without the scholars, the movie wouldn’t have come to be.  Blaming the product upon the process is like blaming the bomb and not the scientists who developed it or the politicians who set it off.  We can’t claim diplomatic immunity here, we’re part of the problem.

It is with great respect for Dr. Shapiro that I am forced to disagree with his conclusion.  His rage, however, is one which I’m certain I’ll be sharing of in the next few weeks.

Nostalgia for the Lost Generation

So there are two things you should know.

Number one: if you are ever in Bar Harbor and looking for an evening’s entertainment, you

enjoying the couches and TV tables inside reel pizza (yes, that is inside a movie theatre!)

should check out reel pizza.  Imagine a movie theatre.  Imagine a movie theatre with couches.  Imagine a movie theatre with couches that serves fresh homemade pizza and locally brewed beers.  Imagine all that with old school aluminum TV tables and an intermission about halfway through the movie.

This place is too intensely cool for words.  They only play two movies at any given time and they do tend to fill up for shows, so make sure you get there super early and be prepared to see something quasi-indie.  Totally worth the (might I add cheap) ticket price.

Number two: If you have yet to see Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, correct this egregious oversight as expediently as possible.  Especially if you have any interest in literature, painting, Paris, or the 1920s.

 

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Basic plot synopsis: Hollywood screen-writer Gil comes to Paris with his fiancé Inez in hopes of finishing his book while they are there.  He is also nostalgically stuck in 1920s Paris and romantically longs to wander the streets in the rain and write in a one-room apartment in the Latin Quarter.  WASP Inez is having none of that and instead strikes up an affair with her old flame.  Gil, intent to enjoy Paris on his own terms, discovers that if he waits on a certain street corner, at midnight a cab will appear and he can enter that cab to be transported to 1920s Paris where he hangs with such illustrious influences as Gertrude Stein, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Salvador Dali.

Of course, I enjoyed the film, but couldn’t help but notice one blaring detail which fails to surface over its course.

When, exactly, does Gil go back to and are his companions during the time travel segments of the movie feasible?

The entire film is based upon a nostalgia for “the twenties”.  Several times, Gil explains his time travel adventures as going back to “the twenties”.  This occurred enough times in the film’s sequence that it seemed out of place.  Wouldn’t someone so enthralled with Paris’ history have some notion, based upon the surrounding historical events as well as the company he kept, of when he was?

My snooping around has revealed several things.  First and foremost, a disclaimer: I am not an art historian or a Picasso enthusiast.  My information on Picasso is as limited as my sources, and there is simply so much to sift through.  I have done my best to compile reliable sources in a limited amount of time, but if any of you know more than I do about the topic do feel free to correct me.

During the time of Gil’s visits, both Hemmingway and Fitzgerald had published at least once before.  Hemmingway’s first work was The Sun Also Rises published in 1926, and Fitzgerald’s first novel was This Side of Paradise in 1920.  Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby in 1925, and in the subsequent years he and his wife Zelda (married in 1920) made several trips to Paris and became close with the expatriate community there (including Hemingway whom the Fitzgeralds met in 1925 in Paris).

So far, so good.  All evidence points to a time period between 1925 and 1930.

Hemingway was close with Gertrude Stein and he did meet Picasso at Stein’s salon (the bastion of modernism in Paris).  Picasso never had a mistress named Adriana (his mistress in Allen’s film), though the painter was famous for his affairs.  As far as I can tell, the actual woman who most resembles the Adriana figure is Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso’s mistress during the time in which he was married to Olga Khoklova.  Picasso married Khoklova in 1918 and had a child with her in 1921.  After the child was born, their relationship deteriorated and Picasso met Walter in 1927 in Paris.

 

A Picasso Nu Couch, this one was painted in 1942

The Picasso painting shown in the movie, allegedly of Adriana, is not actually a Picasso.  It does, however, closely resemble any one of his nu couché paintings (nude on a couch).  It is clearly done in the mid-to-end of his career since Picasso didn’t adopt the cubist style until 1910.

Alright, so if we’re assuming that Adriana is Walter, then the film couldn’t have taken place until at least 1927.

Incidentally, in January 1927, Hemingway divorces his first wife Hadley.  He married Pauline Pfeiffer in the May of that same year.  Hemingway had been having an affair with Pfeiffer, though Hadley and Hemingway separated in Paris (presumably where Pfeifer was not).  Allen’s Hemingway displays a raucous amount of womanizing behavior, perhaps to be expected of a man recently separated from his wife. Hemingway’s women are never mentioned in the film, though at one point he runs off to Africa with Adriana.

The trip to Africa did, in fact, happen… but not until 1952.  During the trip, he was almost killed in a plane crash and this incident left Hemingway in pain or poor health for the rest of his life.

So despite a few little irregularities, we can fairly firmly place Gil’s time travel to the Spring of  1927.  Incidentally, at that juncture Hemingway had yet to pen A Farewell to Arms (though most of his lines in the movie seem as though they come directly out of this book).  Mark Twain, also mentioned in the film, had already published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) as well as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (1876) so it is a slight wonder that, when Gil mentions these publications, he receives only blank stares.  This year was almost exactly mid-career for Fitzgerald, though he had already published both his most lucrative work (This Side of Paradise) and his most lasting (The Great Gatsby).

So there you have it.  And now that that niggling detail won’t be bothering you the entire movie, even more reason to go see it.

…you may want to brush up on your lost generation trivia before you go.  Understanding the in jokes isn’t pivotal to enjoying the experience, but it most certainly helps.