Sweet Sweet Parsing

So have you guys seen the article about Parsing is Such Sweet Sorrow that’s been going around lately?

It was brought to my attention by a mentor of mine and I have a few colorful things to say about the project.

Let me start here: Yes!  Computers are useful!  And yes!  Digital humanities has some really exciting applications, even in the field of theatre!  You might think that this is a really simple thing to say/discover, but please let me take a moment to tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in on where I’ve heard theatre scholars of varying levels say either directly or indirectly “the digital humanities have no holding on my field.”  WRONG.  Computers are great at certain things that can make all of our lives easier.  They’re awesome at searching things, they’re fantastic at pattern recognition, they can find and share information across the world faster than you can say “speed of light” (…unless you’re on dial-up for some god forsaken reason in which case I’m so very sorry for you).

So well and truly: I think that Emma Pierson, the researcher who put together this project, is onto something really important: using computers with theatre!

That said, the findings aren’t anything new.  Heck, I could have told you exactly what she told you with her fancy charts and graphs without even boning up on my Romeo and Juliet (…though I will admit, my ability to quote Shakespeare from memory has been referenced in casual conversation as “inhuman” and “more than any healthy human being should really know”).

I took issue with a few metrics used in this study.  First and foremost, the length of the plays weren’t taken into consideration.  Placing Romeo and Juliet (a play of  24,535 words) on the same graph as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (16,511 words) without re-jiggering some appropriate metrics creates a skewed representation of the data (the average length of a play for Shakespeare, by the by, is 22,595 words which is the approximate length of Richard II… give or take a couple hundred words).  So while this data isn’t technically wrong, creating comparisons between these plays without figuring percentages of lines rather than number of lines creates a false sense of what’s actually going on here.  We can’t compare if there’s no real basis for comparison, and unfortunately Pierson has presented data that lives in its own world.  She’s just put those worlds side by side on the same axis and color-coded it to make it look cohesive.  It’s really not.

Pierson begins to unpack this data and postulates that the plays with the most connected lovers are also those with strong women.  I’m not certain we can really draw that conclusion from the limited sample size utilized in this study.  There are a few very notable strong women who are completely left out: Rosalind, Julia, Imogen, and Helen come to mind immediately.  What happens if we add the Princess of France and Rosaline from Love’s Labour’s Lost to this mix?  I think that will pretty well throw a monkey wrench in the entire operation considering the lovers in LLL hardly ever interact.  Or how about Isabella from Measure for Measure?  Can we even call her a “lover”?  She’s certainly a strong female Shakespearean lead… and she definitely ends up married at the end of her play… so what do we make of her?

I’m a huge fan of crafting visualizations like this to create conclusive and interactive data about things which were previously opinion based and, subsequently, inconclusive.  My large issue with the “Parsing” project is that it has so many holes.  Certainly it begins some new brainwaves, which is always good, but I’d love to see this information a bit more thoroughly teased out.  Honestly, I’d love to have the opportunity to get my hands dirty with it.  What could we find out from a study like this if we didn’t cherry-pick our plays?  I’m not sure, but I’d really like to find out.

At the end of the day, this is the important take-away: computers are only bound by our puny human brains.  Imagination is what will be the limiting variable in any study; even ones which utilize advanced technology to create neat little bar graphs.

For the Children

As you may or may not recall, I’ve just come off a project at the Charlestown Working Theatre.  It has been my pleasure to fight direct their Advanced Youth Ensemble’s production of Macbeth.  The show opens on Saturday the first and runs weekends through the ninth (for more information, check out the CWT website).  This production has given me the opportunity to think about a great many things (not the least of which being “What’s the best way to kill a child, but not the infant he’s carrying, onstage?”; “How badass are the Banquos?”; and “If I were the King of Scotland, what would my signature broadsword move be?”).  One of the more poignant issues came up the other day in rehearsal, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss it.

This show is a production with teens.  The cast is (mostly) aged 13-18.  CWT plays host to several youth programs for children of varying ages and it’s truly a family place.  As a result, the director mentioned to me that she has been asked by parents if this show is appropriate for their younger children.

Alright, look.  Macbeth is a violent show that deals with adult themes.  Depending on the production company and the director’s imagination, sometimes the show is more violent than other times.  This version of Macbeth happens to be “bloodless” (by this I mean that, while murders are staged, we are not using blood or gore effects) and the violence is relatively straightforward (the murders are “clean” without being psychotic or sociopathic; the murderers take no apparent relish in their task but rather perform it as a duty).  Honestly, I think that this Macbeth is extremely appropriate for children of a certain age.

 

Me working with the cast.  Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Me working with the Macbeth cast (specifically Macbeth and Young Siward). Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Because bad things do happen in the world; and sometimes they happen to good people.  There isn’t a single news channel that wouldn’t show coverage similar to what we’re producing onstage.  This world is not always a safe place to be, and coming to terms with that is a part of growing up.

We go to the theatre to be transformed.  The old adage that philosophers unto ancient times have touted is that good theatre is meant to educate and entertain.  What better way to teach your children about violence than to expose them to violent acts in a safe space, where no one will really get hurt, and where the consequences are reversible?  Will young children feel disturbed by what they see in Macbeth?  I hope so.  If you can witness these kind of deeds without feeling some kind of stirring in your gut, then I don’t think you’re fit for humanity.  But what a teaching moment for them; what a place to learn is a theatre.

Besides which, there’s nothing we are showing that they can’t see in to even greater extreme on television, in movies, or in video games.  Did you know that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985?  I’ve seen enough faceless murder victims on the big screen to know that killing isn’t a thing Hollywood takes seriously.  Blood, gore, assault… these are issues which we should be discussing with our children.  And, luckily, they are issues which Shakespeare takes seriously.  I think that Macbeth is a learning opportunity.  It’s an outlet for conversation about some BIG TOUGH issues which are and are not pieces of our daily lives.  Because, let’s face it, even though we are confronted with depictions of violence on an almost-daily basis, how often do we talk about it?

So I encourage you to take the opportunity that theatre has presented.  Teach your children about violence in a meaningful way in hopes that they can come to respect it and, in turn, realize how impactful it can be.  And, hey, maybe come see Macbeth.  Just to find out what that signature move I invented might be.

Robin’ Hearts

Yesterday was my birthday.

To celebrate I did many things.  One of them was to see theatre.  We went to go see the A.R.T.’s production of The Heart of Robin Hood.

I wanted to see it because it sounded like fun.  I mean, it’s a play.  About Robin Hood.  How could this not be interesting?

It turned out to be much more than I expected.  Yes, yes, there was talent onstage (both in the acting and execution of the show), the writing was good, and the sundry list of things you expect from professional theatre was all fulfilled with gusto.  Let’s talk about how this show went above and beyond expectations:

First of all, the set design.  I’ve never before seen a set that was more enveloping, more

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

appropriate, or more useful to the production.  From the moment I walked in to the theatre, I had absolutely no doubt that I was in Sherwood Forest.  Above this, every single little piece of the set was used for something (generally many somethings) in an unexpected and creative way throughout the course of the production.  The set was so wedded to the show that I had a hard time conceiving of how this could have possibly been rehearsed without it.  If you go for not other reason, go to see how set design can influence and effect a production.  Sets: not just pretty ways to decorate a room.

But it wasn’t just the set that made the set.  The lighting design for this production was so spot-on and wonderful that it was noteworthy.  Lighting design is an often-unacknowledged portion of the show as, generally, great lighting design is invisible and awful lighting design is nauseating.  In Robin Hood, the lighting was simply magical and almost cinematic in its magnitude.  It integrated seamlessly into the beautiful production, while simultaneously adding unending value to the story.  I often found myself wishing that my life could be lit the way Björn Helgason lit Sherwood.  Please?

Now let’s talk about the dramaturgy.  It’s not like Robin Hood is a new concept by any stretch of the term.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in most cases, Robin Hood is a trite cliché that should probably not be relied upon to add value to anything.  The A.R.T. production proved that you can teach an old outlaw new tricks.  At every turn, the production subverted your Robin Hood expectations while simultaneously remaining true to the story we all know and love.  Additionally, the program notes were well-written and lain out so as to give a glimpse into the playwright and designers’ dramaturgical processes.  Here was pertinent, interesting information about the show that you were about to see made accessible for a theatre (or Robin Hood) novice.  Dramaturgy at its finest.  Bravo.

And, for our superficial moment of the review, let’s talk about the bodies onstage.  This was an extremely physical show that constantly put the human form on display.  Following in the footsteps of the A.R.T.’s now-Broadway smash sensation Pippin, Robin Hood integrated physical performance and acrobatic athletics to create stunning visual tableau with bodies to match the already-lovely presence of the space.  What this means without jargon: well-muscled men in tight leather pants and open-front vests performing feats of strength for your amusement.  By way of a birthday surprise, this didn’t go amiss (it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to see, but who wouldn’t take six-pack abs and leather to gaze adoringly at from the comfort of Sherwood?).  Lest you fear that this show is all-fluff and no-stuff, let me assure you that the acting prowess of these gentlemen matches their physical abilities and you will not be left to work hard in suspending your disbelief.  These guys are triple threats: acting, dancing, and (get ready for it) singing.  Yup.  They can come serenade me by my window any day of the week.

Oh yea, there’s a whole female empowerment story arc (Marion dresses as a boy and goes to pal around in the woods for a while), and a few of the scenes are essentially modern-text renditions of As you Like it.  For once, this homage didn’t make me angry; the playwright acknowledged it in his production notes, the actors did it justice, and I was happy to have snuck in some surprise Bard on my birthday.  Fun fact: Prince John’s last line is almost verbatim Malvolio’s last line from Twelfth Night.  Because who doesn’t like declaring revenge to the court before making a dramatic exit?

So really; if you have even a half interest in any of the things mentioned in this review (or circuses, ducks, bluegrass music, or stage combat), grab a ticket and go see.  Even better: take your kids.  They’ll love it and it’ll make you feel better about squealing like an over-excited toddler when the good guys start to throw down.

 

A Comedy of Errors

In celebration of my triumph, my beaux took me to see a show this weekend.  And not just any show.  A SHAKESPEARE show.  A show that we’ve both been dying to see for some time now and which displayed great promise in its advertised concept.

The new-to-Boston Anthem Theatre Company performed a four-man Comedy of Errors  at the BCA Plaza blackbox.  At ninety minutes with no intermission and some creative application of props/costumes, it was a high-octane performance with great entertainment value.

Unfortunately, the performance was (for me) overshadowed by an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the production company.

I’ve always thought that a program bio for a dead playwright was a bit odd.  Granted, sometimes it contains useful information for an audience (especially if the show is meant to be an “introduction to [playwright]” for a crowd who wouldn’t normally see this type of theatre).  It makes slightly more sense when there’s a dramaturge working on a production with expertise in the subject matter who can craft a bio with good/entertaining tidbits.

Anthem, however, made a cardinal mistake: they copy and pasted from the internet.

The bio in their playbill is attributed to http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/william_shakespeare.html and has all the usual axioms about Shakespeare.  The piece which bothered me most was this paragraph:

“Shakespeare died in 1664; it is not clear how he died although his vicar suggested it was from heavy drinking.”

 At first I couldn’t tell if this was a joke.  The timbre of the show was irreverent; maybe this was some sort of wink to that.  A little investigation brought me to realize what was going on here: the error is reprinted verbatim from its source.  The issue wasn’t purposeful, it was simply a careless copy job.

First of all; Shakespeare died in 1616.  He was born in 1564.  The playbill misprint is likely

doesn't it look like we're private eyes in a noir movie?

doesn’t it look like we’re private eyes in a noir movie?

a transcription error on the part of biographyonline.net which was propagated by simply cutting and pasting the bio without fact-checking it.

It’s almost the first thing I tell my students when they walk into my class: never copy and paste off the internet.  And certainly don’t do so without a bit of investigation of your own.  One google search would have divested the truth about Shakespeare’s death date to whomever curated this playbill.

 

The bit about heavy drinking was a fairy tale I hadn’t heard before.  After some poking around, I see that (like so much else about Shakespeare’s life) it’s a reasonably common myth with an unclear origin; certainly not canonical fact, and not something that I would include in a reliable bio.

Why was I so enraged at this incident, you may ask?  Because first of all it undermines the authority of the work.  How am I supposed to trust that these people know anything about Shakespeare?  How am I supposed to respect the hard work of the actors/company if I can see that their playbill is thrown together by someone who simply doesn’t know any better and hasn’t bothered to find out?  What do they have to contribute to this conversation, or teach to an audience of Shakespeare-beginners, if they can’t get their basic facts straight?

The second reason that this made me angry was that it didn’t have to be a problem.  If the company wanted a dramaturge (or even just someone to write a smart playbill note), all they had to do was send one e-mail to any theatre department in the Boston area.  Said department, I can nearly guarantee, would have had a student willing to work on this project for free.  Suddenly, the company is engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with a scholar; the dramaturge gets a resume byline, and the company gets an accurate piece of micro-scholarship.  Problem: more than solved.  And no fuss/no muss.

Really, this hits at the heart of an issue near and dear to my heart.  If scholarship can’t feed and serve practice, then what’s the point of scholarship?  And if practice refuses to acknowledge scholarship, then how can it serve its purpose?  Without a healthy dialogue between the two, we’re stuck in a combined death-spiral to mutual-but-separate oblivions.

It baffles me even more that companies who do classical work seem less likely to hire dramaturges than companies who do contemporary work.  Wouldn’t you think that a company who specialized in Shakespeare would want someone around who knows the ins/outs/back ends/front ends/historical tidbits/correct pronunciation intimately?  Or how about a company that generally does contemporary plays but is taking a dip into the Shakes-world; wouldn’t you think they would want someone to converse with about any questions they may have even more?

So long as we continue to put our hands over our ears and sing loudly to ourselves that our work is the only legitimate work, we will not grow as a community.  Without understanding and helping each other, we risk stagnation as artists and scholars.  So please, for the love of all things bardy, hire (or at least consult) a dramaturge.  If you find a good one, I promise that your work (and theirs!) will benefit from it.

The Summer of Love

Thanks to Joss Wheedon, it’s been a Much Ado summer.  Without any intention of collecting an exclusive list of Much Ados in the New England area, I’ve personally seen four productions so far (two full productions, the film, and one staged reading).  Since I don’t have any more on the docket (unless something unexpected pops up, which it might), I thought I might take a moment to make some general observations about the play from my privileged Much Ado-steeped dramaturgical brain while the shows were fresh in my mind.  I suppose this could also serve as a basic primer for theatre makers looking to create a production of Much Ado and not looking to hire a dramaturge (big mistake, but the benefits of having someone around to serve that role are fodder for another post).

1)   The most hard and fast rule about producing Much Ado About Nothing is that your Beatrice and Benedick ABSOLUTELY have to work.  They essentially carry the production and without them, you’re sunk.  I’ve seen some tolerably good performances this summer, but none that were well matched (one show had a strong Beatrice and a weak Benedick, another show vice versa, etc.).  These actors need to be charming and deep.  The audience needs to love them despite their quirks.  They need to be experts with the language.  They need to have chemistry with each other.  Lining up these factors is nearly as difficult as convincing the stars to align (especially in the world of amateur theatre where your talent pool is your talent pool and there’s not much you can do about it), but vital to the health of your production.  Trust me, this will make or break your show.

2)   The part of Hero is perhaps the most difficult part in the show to play (Claudio and Dogberry make close seconds).  Honestly, one of the strongest performances of Hero I’ve ever seen was performed by a dressmaker’s dummy passed around to various cast members when Hero herself needed to be.  There’s a danger of making Hero too ingénue.  She absolutely has to be sweet and pretty and obedient, but she has some fire in her that, if allowed to come out, will add dimension to your production.  Think about the gulling of Beatrice; Hero is both smart and saucy (she demonstrates this as well in the ball scene when she sasses the masked Prince).  A further point of caution: if her part is cut too severely, she comes off as nothing but an airy fairy sugar-spun object.  Careful with this one.

3)   Dogberry is extremely difficult to make read to a modern audience.  If he’s played too smart, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played with too much status, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played by someone who does not have an absolutely command of the language, he doesn’t make sense.  Dogberry and the watch need to come off as well-meaning, sweet, regular guys whose logic sometimes doesn’t match our earth logic.  The most important thing to remember is that Dogberry is striving, with every fiber of his being, to have status he just doesn’t know how to make it work.  He’s trying, by virtue of “being is becoming”, to make himself into a real leader and a true soldier… he just can’t quite get there.

4)   The third-act wedding scene needs to be a punch in the gut bordering

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don't have anything else to put here

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don’t have anything else to put here

on melodrama.  This scene changes the entire tide of the production.  Suddenly we go from a rollicking comedy to something which (if ended prematurely) could more resemble a classic tragedy.  You really need to set this change of pace up for an audience and draw them into the mood.  Claudio really needs to manhandle Hero.  Hero really needs to have a reason to faint and look dead.  Beatrice really needs to have a reason to be weeping into the next scene.  These are strong, dynamic characters capable of extreme emotional manipulation and extreme emotional reaction; if this is not expressed, your production suddenly no longer has purpose.  The entire second half doesn’t have a reason to exist, and (most importantly), my favorite scene in the canon falls flat.  If there’s no real given reason for Beatrice’s famous utterance, the audience just won’t buy it.

5)   Speaking of duels, if you choose to modernize your production make sure the gender and status dynamics still make sense.  See my previous post on this point.

6)   Another note about status: the Prince needs to have an easy sort of control over every situation he’s placed in.  Though a guest in Leonato’s house (and in act four certainly emotionally indebted to Leonato), he is still the Prince.  Despite anything which may be happening (including, as he believes, the death of Leonato’s daughter which is at least in part his fault), he must maintain that status.  This is particularly important because modern American audiences do not understand status.  If you work hard through the course of your production to create status, any chink will make the entire illusion crumble.  Don’t give the audience a reason not to buy into your world.

7)   For god’s sake can someone please come up with a creative solution to Don John?  I have yet to see anyone in the role who doesn’t make me think of Keanu (though granted, Sean Maher’s performance came close to banishing this image – he was pretty sexy).  Textually, he’s a problem.  He’s obviously brooding and quiet, angry with his brother and ready to revel in any misfortune that he can cause because of this.  But is there any way to make this into a villain that we love to hate?  I’m so sick of stoic-faced Princes who turn into whining, petulant grumps in the presence of their henchmen only to plot a revenge which they obviously take no joy in.  Someone, please, fix this and invite me to your show so I can stop wondering if anyone will get the Prince a surfboard.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things I see, just bits which tackle some of the play’s bigger issues.  If you’re planning a production and are looking for a dramaturge, I highly encourage you to contact me.  I always love to participate in crafting good Shakespeare and this play has a special place in my heart.

And now, back to the comps grind.

Epic Theatre

My oh my the amount of theatre I saw this weekend!  So much theatre that I might not get to write reviews of everything; but here’s another to add to the collection.

Saturday, I got out to see Apollinaire’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.  For those who have never seen Apollinaire before, they’re a really great company (their Uncle Vanya this year past was truly wonderful and made me, a formerly dubious audience of Soviet theatre, a true Chekhov believer).  As far as I can tell, they prefer to produce “strolling” productions (that is, shows which take place in literally different locations so that the audience has to move with the action in order to observe it).  For Caucasian Chalk Circle, this particular aesthetic fed in exceedingly well with Brecht’s piece.

Bertold Brecht was a German playwright who changed the face of theatre as we know it.  After writing some extremely influential pieces (including Mother Courage and her Children and Threepenny Opera), he fled Germany and the imminent Nazi occupation.  After a veritable tour of Northern Europe, he came to land in the United States for a time.  During this time, Brecht was unsure about his future, unsure whether he would ever seen Germany again, and unsure whether his plays would ever be performed once more in his native language.  Still, he wrote plays in German.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of those plays.

Brecht is perhaps most famous for his grand contribution to the development of

View of the Tobin from Mary O'Malley Park.... it's a little industrial

View of the Tobin from Mary O’Malley Park…. it’s a little industrial

the theatrical form known as “epic theatre”.  Epic theatre is a modern style developed in reaction to naturalism and its most salient goal is for an audience to have constant awareness that it is witnessing a play in production rather than any slice of reality.  To achieve this, epic theatre utilizes imbedded elements such as narrators, storytellers, and song; technical attributes such as screens, projections, and fully lit houses; and performance traditions such as actors playing multiple characters, and actors moving sets and changing costumes in full view of the audience.  The effect of estranging an audience from the play’s action is something which Brecht calls “Verfremdungseffekt” and is often translated as “alienation”.

In light of this, Apollinaire’s show is precisely in keeping with the Brechtian tradition.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is a free, open-air production which springs up in Mary O’Malley park as quickly and ephemerally as its pre-show music (…mostly this pre-show music seemed to be generated by the assembled flock of musicians being bored together and so we were treated to impromptu renditions of Johnny Cash standards on an accordion).  As such, the audience can see every single string.  The actors move the sets between locations and unabashedly set them up/take them down as necessary.  The stagehands flit about in full view of the assembly as they assist with costumes and props.  The storyteller asks audience members to follow her from location to location between acts.  A chalkboard acts as a makeshift screen and announces the title of each act.  I think it is safe to say that Apollinaire succinctly and gracefully captured the spirit of epic theatre.

The set for act two... and the river.  The sunset I didn't quite manage to capture but trust me, it's also worth the trip.

The set for act two… and the river. The sunset I didn’t quite manage to capture but trust me, it’s also worth the trip.

The assembly was rock solid.  There wasn’t a weak performance amongst the lot.  Despite Brecht’s insistence that an audience not overly empathize with his characters, it was hard to maintain the appropriate Brechtian distance due to the power of Courtland Jones’ Grushna and the charmingness of Mauro Canepa’s Simon.  I can only hope that their Spanish-cast counterparts (the show is performed in English/Spanish on alternating nights) bring as much punch to the story.

Apollinaire performs Chalk Circle sans its prologue.  While this is a common practice, it is one which scholars have debated for years since the prologue frames the tale within an external story.  The prologue sets the scene in post-WWII Soviet Union and depicts two communes arguing over a piece of land.  In order to further enlighten the dispute, one commune decides to perform an old folk tale for the other.  Arkadi Cheidze, the story-teller/singer, brings his band of minstrels to do so and the play commences.

Does it change the meaning of this piece to have that framework surrounding it?  It would certainly have answered my big question as I walked away (“what are we to take from this play?”).  I leave that for you to ponder and encourage you, with all the force of my internet-power, to go see this show.  It’s a great night out, and it’s free, so you really have no excuse.

As a coda to this verse, let me take a moment to expound upon how much I love open-air theatre and most especially initiatives like this one.  Free quality theatre in the park is truly a service to society.  Looking around the audience, I was struck by how many people there looked like “normal people”; we were just an assembly of neighbors come to watch a play.  Pretensions were out the window as we sat on picnic blankets and towels, huddled close around the storytellers.  For me, theatre doesn’t get much more wholesome than this.  Call me a romantic, but I’m a firm believer in this sort of initiative because of its equalizing power and would like to assert that it is pieces like this which will ensure future audiences for the general theatrical community.

Caucasian Chalk Circle plays through this week and closes on July 27th.  There is one more Spanish performance on Friday the 26th.  For more information, visit Apollinaire’s website.

The Love Boat Goes to Verona

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending opening night of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona on Boston common.

After last year’s middling Coriolanus, I didn’t have high hopes for this (…that may also be the comps brain talking since I’m not sure I could work up the energy to have high hopes about anything right now).  Especially after reading that the concept was “rat pack”.  I just wasn’t sure things would work out; Two Gents is a notoriously difficult play to make read to a modern audience, Shakespeare on the Common is notoriously not the sum of its parts for whatever reason, and Boston weather patterns make outdoor evening theatre a gamble at best.

But somehow, despite all this, the cosmos aligned and it was truly a production worth seeing!

Jenna Augen’s Julia was absolutely adorable (even in the face of a tragic act-one kerfluffle in which Mimi Bilinski, her Lucetta, failed to come onstage at her cue and left poor Augen to live out the actor’s nightmare: scrambling to cover for a co-star while under the pressure of rhymed iambic pentameter).  She had some sauce and spice and a decidedly different take on the Act V reversal (which I won’t ruin for you since I want to encourage you to go see the show).

our blanket: a still-life.

our blanket: a still-life.

Rimo Airaldi’s Speed and Larry Coen’s Launce were a comic duo that actually made sense.  They played the jokes to a T and, despite any misgivings I had about an older more august Speed, I was quickly charmed into their clutches.

Rick Park’s Duke of Milan is the best I’ve ever seen.  His portrayal of an incensed father in III.i (the scene during which Valentine is outcast) was real enough that I truly believed he would kill Valentine (Andrew Burnap) if given half the chance.  And this, my friends, caused dramaturgical magic.  Because the threat of death was so real, Burnap was able to launch into the most transcendent rendition of the “what light is light” speech that I have ever heard.  I, the notorious curmudgeon, was moved to tears and could only be revivified by the liberal application of the annual CSC signature Ben and Jerry’s sundae (this year’s creation: the Crabbe Bag…. Eat one.  You won’t regret it.).

In terms of the concept, it worked a lot better than I expected it to.  The outlaws in the woods became Wild West clowns/menaces and Act V devolved into a road-runner style farcical chase complete with door-swinging and dance-hiding.  Because of this, the general tone of disingenuousness led to a ready acceptance of the notoriously hard to stage Act V reversal.  Well done, CSC.  Well done.

I have only two complaints.  The first is that there was no fight director or violence coordinator billed in the program while I certainly saw some onstage violence.  If you need to understand the importance of this, let me guide you self-promotionally to the following youtube interview with some people who know what they are talking about in this regard.

The second is that in order to serve the concept, the director chose to include a liberal amount of extra-textual music numbers.  Julia burst out with “fever”, Launce sang “ain’t that a kick in the head?”, etc.  These music numbers, though well executed, slowed the pace of the first act to a crawl.  It would have served just as well to include half the number of musical interludes and I think it would have kept the audience more engaged not to be bursting into non-Shakespeare song every ten to fifteen minutes.

As I said, on the whole this was a very good rendition of a hard-to-perform piece.  If nothing else, it’s a free evening of entertainment, the common is beautiful this time of year, and you can enjoy your own picnic libations with some good company while waiting for curtain.

Though if you, like me, get the sudden urge to fox trot when any of the rat pack tunes are played by a live jazz band, be prepared to bring some dancing shoes.

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.

Breaching the Breech

Earlier this week, I was able to attend a reading of Much Ado About Nothing presented by the Hub theatre company at Boston’s own Trident booksellers.

I’ve come to be wary of staged readings of Shakespeare.  By and large, I think that this forum works better for the tragedies (the comedies often rely upon too much physical humor/movement to make land in a staged reading, and the histories are already confusing enough without mixing in the complications of double-casting and no costumes).  For that, this was an enjoyable and low-key evening of theatre.

One thing that really got me thinking was the casting of a lady Leonato.  I’ve seen this trend developing lately (Actor’s Shakespeare Project cast a lady Duke of Milan in their Two Gents earlier this year).  We’ve seen in recent years (and I will blame this majorly on Julie Taymor) many female Prosperos, but to see this trend of making Shakespeare’s august noble characters in positions of power who are volleying politics by marrying off their daughters turned into women begs some complications that have to be re-examined.

Let me start off by saying that this has nothing to do with the quality of the acting.  So far, every august Lady I’ve seen in these roles has been fantastic.  But there are a few innate gender issues that you simply can’t escape when you have a woman playing a man’s role in this way.

I will limit my discussion here to Leonato because expanding it would get us into too-long-to-blog territory.

Even when we modernize Much Ado, was have to deal with a few dramaturgical truths.  Any “modernized” production of Shakespeare still needs to face the text because, well, you can’t ignore it.  If you ignore the text, why are you doing Shakespeare?

Dramaturgical truth the first: We’re in a world that has defined gender relationships.  This is made true by Beatrice’s show-stopping speech in Act Four.  She laments that she is powerless in her situation due to her gender.  As such, even if we drag the show into

In case you're not sick of these shots yet; Rosalind and Touchstone from As You Like It... TALK about gender issues

In case you’re not sick of these shots yet; Rosalind and Touchstone from As You Like It… TALK about gender issues

“modern” or semi-modern times, we must still be in a universe with distinct gender boundaries.

Dramaturgical truth the second: We’re in a world where marrying someone is a play for political power.  We know this because of Leonato coaching Hero before the dance (“Daughter, remember what I told you: if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer”).  For that matter, we’re in a world with a very defined social hierarchy dealing with characters who have title and standing (A Prince, the Count Claudio, etc.).  Leonato is a part of this world; as a wealthy landowner he can host the Prince and his entourage and even seems to have some standing amongst them.  However, he is not blind to the opportunities which may present themselves while the Prince is a guest in his household.  Marrying his daughter to the Prince would do wonders for Leonato’s social standing and, while he’s not a cut-throat social climber like (for instance) Lord Capulet, he does have an awareness of society around him.

Dramaturgical truth the third: Gender relations and transgresses upon them make up a large portion of this play’s plot.  While we are dealing with wedding and wooing, the play’s major conflict also consists of Hero’s supposed trespass against her duties as a good daughter.  It is a very different scene when she and Beatrice are the only women onstage attacked and defended by the men around them than it is if Leonato becomes Leonata.  In the first case, we clearly see the gender divide that Beatrice laments in the scene to follow.  In the second, we wonder why it is that Beatrice can’t fight the gender roles just as Leonata did and assert her own authority.  In this way, giving Leonato a sex change very clearly negates Shakespeare’s text.  It gives us a world that no longer makes sense, a world that fights the text itself.  Unless a director can find some way to extratextually justify Beatrice’s speech, an audience is left wondering what the big deal is.  And, honestly, any play which needs to make extratextual additions or clarifications is edging into shooting Horatio territory.

Dramaturgical truth the fourth: By making Leonato a woman, we are left with a few historical heritage questions.  Though it’s true that a woman who had become a widower would have been allowed to keep her husband’s estate and have some power over running it, pretty much any man who came along could have found some way to run rampant over her power there and disenfranchise her.  In Much Ado, we have several examples of power hungry men who have everything to gain from Leonata’s estate (the most ready example is Don John the Bastard who could just as easily have ruined everyone’s plans by semi-force-wedding Leonata as he did with his elaborate bed-trick scheme… also: the wedding would have been more permanent).  By making Leonato a woman, it leaves unnecessary loose ends.  Does Leonata end up with Don Pedro at the end (it’s the easiest solution to Benedick’s closing suggestion of “get thee a wife”)?  This director made that particular choice, but that particular choice has its own complications.  What does that mean to the government of Messina?  What does that mean to Leonato’s estate?  Has Claudio then, thereby, inadvertently become much more than he deserves by wedding Hero?  Does this mean that Don John is going to now target Leonato’s line in the obviously ensuing war since Leonato, Hero, and Claudio now stand between himself and his brother’s kingdom?

I think, at this juncture, I’ve sufficiently proven my point.  Cross-gendered casting is not something to be taken lightly (even if you have an awesome cast!).  In the event that you would like to proceed with something like this, make sure you also have an awesome dramaturge to help you think through these issues before you give some poor theatre scholar a headache.  If you don’t have an awesome dramaturge, I happen to know one (hint: it’s me).

This is only the first in a series of readings that Hub is putting on this summer at Trident.  They’re calling the series Beer+bard and despite my over-thinky nit-picks, I do highly recommend that you check them out.  The next is going to be Henry IV i on June 17th at 7PM; come hungry for food and Shakespeare!

Finals und kein Ende

This morning: I had a conversation with Hamlet on twitter about Goethe while reading snippets from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre about a character performing Hamlet.

This sprang from my new favorite quote from Goethe “Away with your fat Hamlets!”

…what I was really doing was preparing a handout for an in-class presentation/facilitation/thingie I have to give on Thursday (one of the two big semester projects still on my docket).

Over the course of preparing this handout, I also discovered that the snippets of Macbeth I had chosen as an object lesson in early German Shakespeare translations for my class were perhaps not entirely what I had previously thought.  When one of my sources discussed the Schlegel translation of Macbeth pretty heavily, I assumed this may be a good example of how the Germans during this time period weren’t quite getting the language as we English-speakers expect to receive it.  I pulled a snippet from Macbeth’s “whence is this knocking?” speech from the 1764 Wieland translation, then same from what I thought was part of the 1801 Schlegel translation (highly regarded as the best rendition of Shakespeare into German from the time).  I re-translated them to English as best I can (because, despite any pretentions to the contrary, graduate students don’t actually know everything), and set them prominently on my handout.

…only to find out that the textual history of the Schlegel is WAY more complicated than I

Finals has done this to me.  That's will riding a horse my grandfather carved while waiting to be sent home during WWII

Finals has done this to me. That’s Will riding a horse my grandfather carved while waiting to be sent home during WWII

had thought (hey, at least I discovered this BEFORE my presentation on Thursday).  Not to bore you with details, but it’s actually a rather cool thing since Schlegel winds up collaborating with Tieck but despite this his translation of the complete works remains unfinished until Tieck’s daughter takes it up.  So apparently what I have is a kind of proto-feminist text that my inner English geek could analyze up the wazoo but, since I’m in a theatre department, should probably refrain from doing so.

Anyway, once this is done then I have a paper to write (that I’m nowhere near as prepared for as usual but thankfully have more time than I thought I would have so… it may just balance in the end).  Then, on May eighth, I turn in that last stack of pages, breathe a sigh of relief, and take a few days to a week off before I start studying for my comps like a mad person.

And at some point in the near future, it’s going to hit me that to complete this semester’s projects I had to do research in a language that I didn’t know a single word of before last June and, moreover, I’ve been routinely walking around with a bagful of books in three different languages (none of the pig Latin)…  Not to brag, but you’ve got to admit that that’s pretty cool.

On that note, I think I’ll put down the Goethe and turn to Molière for a bit.  Because apparently I like pain.

Gird yourselves.  Finals are here.