An Open Letter to New England

Dear New England,

We seriously need to talk.

Now, I know you have your quirks and I have mine.  And I will grant, I am not always the easiest person to live with.  But this passive-aggressive behavior has got to stop.

You run so hot and cold these days, I just don’t know what to do to please you.  One moment, I’m enjoying a run outside, the next moment I’m bundled in all manner of winter gear and trying to stay dry because you can’t decide whether you want to rain or snow.  I will admit that there is a certain beauty to you once you’ve had done with your tantrums; when the snow rests peacefully on the trees and icicles hang sparkling from the eaves.  I will also say that in your milder moments, there’s nowhere in the world I would rather be.

a pretty moment I caught on campus yesterday

a pretty moment I caught on campus yesterday

The colors you wear in your fall wardrobe are unmatched, and your beautiful springtime airs are really all that a girl can ask for.

But then it becomes winter.  And your mercurial side simply won’t allow for any reasonable moderate discourse.  I’m always walking on thin (or sometimes thick) ice with you.  I can’t make any firm plans because I don’t know how you’ll behave on a given day.  You make it impossible to go out sometimes because you throw these tantrums that I’ve never seen anything like before in my life.

You know how much I hate shoveling.  I’ve complained enough about it that I can’t imagine you would have missed this fact about me.  And I will admit that everyone needs to make compromises; if I didn’t agree to some small amount of shoveling, I wouldn’t be able to see you in your autumn splendor.  But this promise of something warmer and then yanking it away before my eyes has simply got to stop.

I thought I was done with winter.  I thought I was done with the hoisting, the hefting, the cold sweats.  I thought I was done with the aching back and the chapped face.

But you couldn’t even give me that.

And, as though to add insult to injury, you decide that on the day my brand new theatre company debuts its brand new production that you know I’ve been working hard on and losing sleep over, you’re going to upstage it by making your own scene.  So you huff and you puff and you blow parking regulations down, and we have no recourse but to cancel.  This night, this night I’ve been looking forward to, this night I’ve been working so hard for, is now taken away from me.  Lost into the swirling white of your raging temper.

I really don’t know what else to say to you.  I don’t think that there’s a way you can make this up to me.  It’s time for some serious re-evaluation of our relationship, New England.  Let me recommend that you start groveling.  Right now.  I’m sad and disappointed at the moment, but this will quickly dissolve into rage.  And really, trust me, you won’t like me when I’m angry.



In case you couldn’t gather from this: due to a weather-induced parking ban in Winthrop, we’ve had to cancel Twelfth Night for this evening.  We will be back tomorrow full-force and hungry, though, so don’t give up on us!  Come and support our efforts as we bring you our experiment in communal theatre for the very first time!

Welcome to Hell

Tech week seems to have one of two effects on me:

The desire to run aimlessly around the house waving my arms over my head in sheer terror because everything is wrong and nothing will ever be right again and good god why do I do this to myself?

Or the desire to drop everything and do nothing but be at the theatre all day because things are going so well and the show is going to be so awesome and I can’t wait for it to go up so I can show people how awesome it is.

Sometimes these things interchange and I bounce from one extreme to the other.

Either way, tech week is not good for my work habits, it’s not good for my diet, it’s not good for my gym habits, and on the whole it’s not really healthy for me as a human being.

Luckily, the process of making theatre is healthy for human beings.  And specifically the

Unrelated: found this at the library today.  Proof that even I can make it in academia.

Unrelated: found this at the library today. Proof that even I can make it in academia.

process of making Shakespeare really helps to feed what I do when I’m not physically in the theatre.  As I’ve mentioned, this process has been bumpy; but we’re making something new.  Forging a new model is always more complicated than falling into the ruts of an old one.  The growing pains of what we’re doing can be forgiven because I really do think that the end product is going to be worth it.

Twelfth Night is different from anything else I’ve worked on.  I’ve talked about the community-oriented formation of this project, but it’s also not an ends to itself.  It’s a process.  In building the only true repertory company in New England, we’re hoping to keep our shows in rep for many years to come.  This performance isn’t a once and done kind of thing; it’s a springboard.  It’s the start of something that we’re making together and, as such, it’s much less stressful than a typical show in some ways.  I don’t feel the pressure to get it right once and for all because I know I’m going to be living with the show for a while.  On the flip side, I don’t feel like the problems that this show has are things that we can just gloss over.  If there’s an issue, we really need to solve it because it’s just going to hang Damocles-style over our heads ad infinitum.

We don’t have much to “tech” in the show because we have no scenery, no lighting cues, and no sound cues.  The things we do need to run are the insane number of quick-changes (I pretty much spend the entire play getting into or out of some outfit or another), the shuttling of props/costumes from an exit to an entrance on time, the manipulation of bodies in the space backstage, and general timing/human things.  Again, in one sense it’s a lot easier.  It’s all us.  If there’s a problem, it’s on us to solve and not a light board or a switch.  In another sense, it’s harder to solve these kinds of issues.  There’s only so fast anyone can move; quick-changes have an upper limit of time compression.

I suppose the ultimate conclusion is that nothing is perfect, the grass is always always greener, and hell week is hell (despite being fun when things are going well).

…it should be noted that the bizarre array of props that I need to pile and bring to rehearsal for this show is interesting enough to list: 1 ukulele, 2 fencing foils, 2 long red ribbons, double stick tape, 1 pair yellow stockings, 1 hair clip (easily put on/taken off), pouches and pouches of fake money, 1 black beret (I play one character that kind of looks like Che Guevara), 1 pair mary-jane chunky heels, nylons, a ring, several jewels given as gifts, maracas, a tambourine, spoons, 1 black Spanish fan, sewing kit, breathe mints (just general good courtesy when you’re up in each others’ faces), letters, sealing wax… there are a lot of hand props in this show.  Lots of gifts.  May be the subject for a paper at some point when it’s not hell week.

Welcome to hell.  Come see my show on Friday.


For reasons that may or may not have anything to do with a certain production of Twelfth Night which I’m currently working on (you should come see it, by the way), I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the re-ordering of scenes in contemporary performance of Shakespeare’s work.

Specifically in the performance of Twelfth Night, the first and second scenes of the first act are often inverted in performance.  For whatever reason (and these reasons differ with theatre companies/directors), theatre-makers feel that it’s sometimes appropriate to re-organize these two scenes.

The opening scene of Twelfth Night as it appears in modern editions depicts the Count

Rehearsal: a still life

Rehearsal: a still life

Orsino at his court in Illyria lounging melancholic across the stage as he orders music played for him and pines for the love of the Countess Olivia (the first lines of this scene is the resounding “If music be the food of love, play on…”).  The second scene shows us Viola crawling onto shore after her shipwreck and asking “What country, friends, is this?”.

The opening lines of Shakespeare plays always tell you something about the play.  In the case of Twelfth Night, the show is steeped in music.  Twelfth Night is a show which examines the effects of music on human beings and Orsino’s court is a place where music is constantly straining in and out in the background, filling the edges of the senses.  Orsino calls music “the food of love” and does, in fact, seem to feed off of it for the entirety of the show.  When the music stops, Orsino is awakened to the harsh realities of life outside his court.  His veil of melancholy and self-delusion is lifted, and he finally sees things for what they are.

Orsino speaks the opening and closing lines of the show (…with the exception of Feste’s song which I would argue does not fall into the category of “speech” so we cannot classify it as the “last lines”).  It’s not often that Shakespeare bookends his shows this way and thus we should take special note of the move in Twelfth Night.  Orsino at the beginning is very different from Orsino at the end; everything and nothing has changed.  This is highlighted by his words and the impetus to speak them and through this the audience is forcibly confronted by the journey which Orsino has taken through the course of the show.

By having the first scene occur in a world and a story already in progress, Shakespeare establishes and highlights that world.  We are shown Illyria and how wacky it can be before the play’s outsider (Viola) enters that world.  It establishes something before fully explaining it; allows the audience to encounter an oddity before the oddity is laid before them in its full detail and glory.  In a way, it shocks an audience into paying attention.  It’s a lot easier for a modern audience to glaze over the lengthy descriptions which populate I.ii than it is for them to ignore the pining Count in I.i.

More rehearsing

More rehearsing

Perhaps most importantly, bending a script to one’s will is the cheater’s way out of solving an acting problem.  If you, as a director/company don’t think that you can deal with the script Shakespeare wrote, then don’t perform Shakespeare.  When an actor encounters a problem, he doesn’t simply change the line to fix that problem; he gets creative.  Shakespeare’s text should be treated with the same integrity.  Now granted, I do think that there is a certain amount of cutting that goes into any healthy modern production of Shakespeare’s text.  I’m also not completely averse to changing small words for the sake of clarity (just make sure you check it with your dramaturg first).  I have even enjoyed productions that played fast a loose with the text; but this sort of thing takes a great deal of care and experience.  As a general rule, don’t re-arrange Shakespeare.  Just don’t do it.  It’s sloppy, tasteless, and gives purists like me a headache.

In the interest of full disclosure, the group decided to swap I.i and I.ii in our production (on a day when I wasn’t there to dissent).  I have made the full extent of my discontent with the decision known and have no plans to censor my opinion about this issue.  Despite this lapse in judgment, the production is a solid one with a lot of fun and energy and I highly recommend you come see it (if for no other reason than now you can snob out the egregious violation of textual integrity innate in the aesthetic choice of scene-swapping).

Super-Secret Mystery Project: Revealed!

It was officially made official last week so I can now officially tell you what all this hulla-ba-loo about my super secret project is about:

I’m working on Twelfth Night.

And it’s not just any Twelfth Night.

 When we finished As You Like It, a few of the cast members and I felt like-mindedly that A) we didn’t want to stop working on Shakespeare, B) we had learned a lot from this process and we wanted to continue learning from each other, and C) we had some ideas about how to create theatre that existing companies may not be comfortable with.

One idea that I have been kicking around for many years is this: can you create theatre without a director?  Do you need a single guiding vision in the room, or is a roomful of smart, talented people a viable alternative?  Can you collaborate one what should be a truly collaborative process?

Apparently, I’m not the only one.  My cohorts felt similarly; too long oppressed by the

Myself and my best gay will be playing old friends once more; he's taking on Feste amongst other roles

Myself and my best gay will be playing old friends once more; he’s taking on Feste amongst other roles

tyranny of ego-driven directors, we struck out on our own to try an experiment.  We wanted to create a dynamic company driven by a mutual passion for Shakespeare and a burning desire to produce his work.  We wanted to create an environment where we could learn from each other equally and where one voice wasn’t necessarily the presiding one.

A few networking connections later and we had begun rehearsal.  Due to the brilliance of one of my compatriots, the show’s been cut to two hours and is being performed with (get this) eight actors.  We’re all doubling roles in one way or another and this has led to a rollicking good time at rehearsal.  Twelfth Night is already a fun show, but pile on top of the innate humor some great ensemble work and meta-theatrics and you’ve got yourself a real winner.  I always leave rehearsal more excited than I was when I walked in, more energized than I was when I walked in, and more impatient to see the end produce than I was when I walked in.

In short: you should come see our little experiment in action!  We’re calling ourselves (at least for now) the “What you Will Players” and we hope to be taking the Boston theatre scene by storm.  Our guiding values are community, engagement (with the audience and the text), enlightenment (of ourselves, each other, and our audiences), and simple performance done simply.  We’re not into bells and whistles and Twelfth Night will be performed largely using costumes and props that we found in our basements and closets.  We’re hoping to show that good Shakespeare doesn’t need the trappings of theatrics

the last time I was in Twelfth Night I played Antonio/the Sea Captain... you know... coz I'm a big scary pirate.

the last time I was in Twelfth Night I played Antonio/the Sea Captain… you know… coz I’m a big scary pirate.

layered on top if it, but rather (simply) a genuine emotional connection.

I’ve worked on Twelfth Night before.  I’ve done monologues, scenes, and even the entire show.  This is the first time that I’ve really felt connected to it, however, rather than distanced from it.  In fact, the last production of Twelfth Night that I was in was the one that made me run screaming from the theatre due to an awful director, his ego-driven antics, and his inability to communicate with me as an actor.  My current rehearsal process is slowly curing me of my Twelfth Night phobia and I can honestly say that this show is going to be a real treat to see.

…so who am I playing, you ask?  Through some exceedingly clever script cutting and some crazy quick changing, I’ll be appearing as both Maria and Olivia.  Can you already tell how much fun this is?

Updates to follow in the coming months!  We will be performing March 8th and 9th at 8PM and 10th at 3PM at the Winthrop Under-Playhouse Blackbox (60 Hermon St., Winthrop MA) so mark your calendars.  Ticket info will be available very soon!

The Weekend in Reviews

This weekend past, I had the good fortune to see three shows over the course of four nights.

Since I’m currently in conference-prep mode, I don’t have the time or sanity to do a full review of each of them, but I would like to say a little something about all of them.  So here’s the weekend in reviews!

Performed by Theater906 at Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts
Directed by Emily C.A. Snyder

For all intents and purposes, this was community theatre Shakespeare.  Now I’ve had some bad experiences with CTS, and some good ones… and I’m sorry to say that this show simply did not deliver.  It had potential; its primary focus was upon the idea of “castles built on sand”.  It was set on the seaside at some point between the world wars, and the title character’s hands (once steeped in blood) never washed clean.

There were a few major flaws with the production: 1) it treated its audience like idiots.  I don’t have a problem with “new” and “different” readings of these plays if they are firmly

The set for MacB. Pretty nice as sets go!

grounded in text and well dramaturged, I don’t even have a problem with a bit of textual manipulation, but if you’re going to do it trust your audience to follow along with you.  The conceit of “sand castles” was written into the program, presented in all the advertising material, and shown out in front of the theatre.  You don’t need to beat us over the head with it in an artsier-than-thou montage during the curtain call.  Have a little faith in the people who see your show.  2) There were some big, bold ideas that were presented in the performance (i.e. Duncan as an angel of death figure who came and retrieved the corpses of the dead, Lady M’s obsession with children, violence violence violence intersecting innocence), but they simply weren’t played ENOUGH.  If you’re going to do something big, go big or go home.  If you do it too small, your audience simply won’t follow you.  Because the director refused to commit to her grand choices, they simply read as half-hearted attempts to connect with a concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out.  3) Macbeth should never be played as Hamlet.  Yes, he runs mad.  Yes, his wife goes bonkers.  But Macbeth’s madness is a different madness than Hamlet’s.  It’s not as weak and bumbling, it has an innate strength and danger to it.  I don’t want to see the King of Scotland writhing on the floor because he killed one man.  Remember: MacB is a SOLDIER.  He’s killed before.  It’s not the act of murder that takes his sanity from him, but rather the sense of divine wrongness in the act of defying natural order.

On the whole, give this one a miss… unless you really feel like you need to get some wear out of your black beret and sunglasses.

Twelfth Night
Performed by the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre at Roots Café in Providence
Directed by Bob Colonna

My love for TRIST and Bob Colonna is no secret.  THIS is the kind of Community Theatre Shakespeare that gives me hope for humanity.

Colonna is masterful at taking a cast of amateur and quasi-professional actors and building them into an unstoppable force of Bardery.  In his Twelfth Night, he cut the text down to two hours, pumped up the volume, and created a rip-roaring evening of vaudevillian hilarity which had us grinning ear to ear.  Colonna’s actors don’t miss a beat, and are simply unstoppable in their boundless amounts of energy and enthusiasm.

Malvolio (front) reads the letter egged on by Sir Andrew, Fabiana, Sir Toby, and Maria

Moreover, Colonna’s textual coaching is unbeatable.  His actors punch the punches with enough force to leave you reeling.  They hit every note (in the case of his Feste with an astounding amount of beauty and power) and aren’t afraid to do things a little differently (doubtless this is a result of Colonna’s creativity with the text and direction).

Side-note: you can always tell when an actor is rehearsing for Sir Andrew Aguecheek because he runs around trying to figure out how to do the “backtrick”.  Someday I want to see someone out with a full back tuck handspring combination…

Unfortunately, I got to this show late in its run so you won’t be able to catch it.  However.  Colonna has promised me that he’s directing As you Like it to perform in June at Roger Williams memorial park.  I will post further details as soon as I know them… but when I do take my word on this: GO.  If you have to steal your neighbor’s donkey and abscond with the rent money to get to Providence, find a way to make it work.  Trust me; it will be worth it.

Romeo and Juliet
Performed by the Stoneham Theatre Company at the Stoneham Theatre
Directed by Weylin Symes

Yea, I know.  How many Romeo and Juliets can one person see in her lifetime?  This one was new and different because Stomeham coupled their adult company with their teen company so the adults played adults and the teens played teens.

As you can imagine, this presents a bit of a problem in terms of sheer experience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complex textually and, while I have seen transcendent teen Shakespeare, it is extremely rare.  To pull it off you need a creative director, a kick-ass text coach, and more than a little bit of luck.

Unfortunately, this production fell short on a few of those items.  While the teens did okay, there was an obvious discrepancy between their ability to speak and that of their older colleagues.  Moreover, the text was poorly cut.  Many bits of this play simply don’t read to a modern audience – the nurse’s long monologues at the beginning, the Queen Mab speech (unless you’re Michael Pennington, but really, who is?)… it needs some careful handling to really plow forward in a way that doesn’t lose its audience.  Unfortunately, whomever handled the text for Stoneham didn’t have a very deft hand with this.  The long bits were long and plodding, and important plot points (i.e. the friar’s letter going astray due to plague) were cut completely.

An old friend of mine (a fight director) held an axiom which I think is vital to dealing with a text as iconic as Romeo.  Here’s the problem: how often has your entire audience heard these things?  How can you even begin to think about putting your mouth around the words “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” without thinking about ALL THE OTHER FAMOUS ACTORS WHO HAVE DONE SO IN THE PAST.  It’s a Harold-Bloom-esque conundrum that plagues the modern actor about to set into any iconic role (Richard Plantagenet “now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York…”; Hamlet “To be, or not to be?  That is the question”; The Witches “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble!”; etc…).  So here’s what you have to do: you have to assume that there is at least one person in that audience who has never had any contact with the text before and doesn’t know how the play ends.  You have to play to that person.  You have to craft a performance so that that person understands your story without any prior knowledge of what may be going on.

This play failed to do so.  They leaned too much upon the cultural capitol which they were mining to put butts in seats and, in doing so, did their entire production a disservice.

The fight direction, on the other hand, was downright amazing and some of the best violence I’ve seen onstage in a long time.  Bravo for that.

On the whole, it was a thought-provoking weekend.  Now here I go, back to conference prep mode; dive!  DIVE!

>By all these lovely tokens, September days are here…


I love autumn.  Every last bit of it.  The leaves change color, the smell of woodsmoke, apple cider and pumpkin is thick in the air, I get to go office supply shopping (don’t judge, I love office supply shopping), boots and adorable denim jackets are seasonal attire once more, and the spirit for my favorite holiday ensues.  The first whiffs of fall make me tingle with anticipation and here in New Jersey the season began to peek its nose around the corner this very week.
Maybe it’s because my life centers so much around school, but the autumn is always a time of new things to me.  September is exciting because I get new notebooks, new classes, new textbooks, new research, new schedule, new back-to-school clothes, new projects… what a whirlwind of change.  This year is looking particularly scary and wonderful due to several factors.  So today, rather than my traditional blogy narrative, I’d like to take a moment to write an autumn-themed list of various and sundry things that have been and will be whirling into (and out of) my life in the past/next few weeks on the harvest wind.
*I’m down to one job!  Briefly, albeit, before work at the theatre starts up again.  My last day at the archive was yesterday.  The life of an archivist is one that I had never thought to live and, I can say with some certainty, it’s much tougher than anyone would have imagined.  Digging, piling, compiling, categorizing, counting, labeling, all the while being paranoid of mouse droppings and assorted pests which may or may not be skittering out of assembled boxes at any given time.  I walked out of the archive every day feeling like I needed to be decontaminated rather than cleaned.  Coated in dust, sneezing, eyes watering, I also felt satisfied.  It was an Indiana-Jones style hunt through paths unblazed by second-generation human knowledge.  That was as exciting as it sounds.  The feeling that around any corner could be waiting a surprise find to change the face of knowledge, the idea that I was doing something worthwhile, and the notion that (while on a small scale) I was becoming an expert in a previously undiscovered area of  comprehension made this perhaps the most fulfilling job I have ever worked.  I would not hesitate to do it again.  That and the pay was good.
*PhD application process begins (seriously) now.  I don’t want to speak on this at great length just now because a) I will likely be speaking on it in future blog entries and b) because it scares me.  More than a little.  The acceptance process into any given program is so arbitrary that, while I know I have done everything right and that I am a prime candidate for my programs, I can’t help but dwell upon the great and imminent coin flip that determines the rest of my life.  This entire ordeal is equally strange because it feels like college applications all over again.  You know, that time in your life that you thought was done but (apparently) is not.  That great burgeoning uncertainty as you stand on the precipice of your future waiting to jump but uncertain which direction will be your best bet for surviving the fall (sorry, can’t resist a pun…).  Looking over the abyss, teetering on the edge, dipping my toe into its unknown depths, I think fear is a natural reaction.  I keep trying to remind myself that fear is an acronym for “False Expectations Appearing Real”, but this seems to only deepen the illusions rather than make them disperse.  I’m fairly certain that I am approaching a jittering, uneasy serenity about this entire process, which, really, is all you can do.  Lay back, enjoy the ride, and accept that for a time you’ll just have no clue.  Yup.  Blissful Cluelessness here I come…
*I cleaned my bookshelf last night of last semester’s textbooks (with the exception of those on the Master’s Reading Exam List which got re-located to a separate shelf) and placed upon it instead this semester’s new acquisitions.  Somehow, this makes everything feel more real.  My first class is on Wednesday, I just completed my first academic reading for the semester, and my first syllabus is printed and ready to go.  I am pumped.  I’m already thinking about paper topics and possible conference papers… though this likely means that I’ll have to finally get around to reading Judith Butler.
*This year at the theatre seems to be Shakespeare year and I can’t be more thrilled.  Two of our four annual productions will be Shakespeare-themed!  In the fall, we will be doing a production of Magic Time by James Sherman followed by a Spring production of Twelfth Night.  Twelfth Night is definitely one of my favorites and a show that I’ve had an intimate knowledge of for some years.  Featuring the best Shakespearean clown (in my opinion), one of the best heroines, and (drum roll please) a comic fight scene, this play really has just about everything that a novice Shakespeare Company would need or want.  Granted, we’re not a Shakespeare company, but we do have some pretty amazing people who work on these things.  Stay tuned for more info on Twelfth Night.  In the meantime, I have been asked to work on Magic Time as the fight director.  Magic Time is a show about a Company producing Hamlet.  Naturally, the duel scene is enacted several times in the script.  Which means that I get to live every fight director’s dream and do the infamous duel.  I’ve started kicking around ideas (it’s harder than you think to kick ideas with a sword when you don’t even know who your actors are and if they have any scrap of hand/eye co-ordination).  Will our heroine be able to pull through?  Will she kill and/or gravely injure any actors in the process?  Will the fight look good and not like a clay-mation Errol-Flynn wanna-be sequence?  Only time will tell….
*I am about 98% certain that I will again be grading for the Best Professor in the World (who may or may not be reading this right now).  Pending financial disaster in the Department or a lack of registration for Eighteenth Century British Lit (part I), I will definitely be on board as a paper monkey for Dr. Lynch.  I could not be more thrilled.  This man has been (and will continue to be) an inspiration and mentor to me as I pick my way through academia.  I am waiting with bated breathe for his Spring Graduate Seminar in Gothic…. Oh, and for those of you who have had need of (and will need in the future) a GREAT style guide written to be useful, readable, and fun, check out his.  It is complete with historical tid-bits and lovingly annotated grammar rules and regulations from a man who knows his stuff.  That and it’s online for free (though it does come in paper version, which, let’s face it, is totally worth having).
*I want to go apple picking and eat pumpkin everything.  I understand that the weather will be kicking back up to eighty degrees this weekend as summer shows us the strength of its death throes.  I hope that this won’t foil my perky autumn-inspired mood…

>Hear me, Beatrice

>A week ago today, I gave a talk at the annual Pawling Shakespeare Club end-of-year luncheon. The club has been in existence for 112 years this year and is one of the oldest continually meeting clubs in the country.

Initially started as a book club for elite women (an endeavor unique in and of its own), eventually membership was opened up to men. The club reads two plays a year and meets on Monday evenings for three months in the Fall then again for three months in the Spring (much like college semesters). This past year, they read Richard III and Much Ado about Nothing. This year, club president Marie DiLorenzo proudly announced at the luncheon, the club would be reading the only two plays which have gone unread by its contingent for the past thirty years: Cymbeline and Pericles.

Sitting in the private party room of a lovely local Italian restaurant (made to look like a wine cellar) as a guest of the club, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the people around me. Here were individuals, all of them over the age of fifty and many of them holding much greater seniority than that, continuing to expand their own minds. There is Intellectual life after Graduate School! Here were people who continue to strive to connect with a world of literature that most chose to leave in the dregs of their college careers. Here were intelligent, creative and driven people who have the chutzpah to read not just one but two plays which may be entirely unfamiliar to them every year, meet together, and discuss these plays. Analyze. Critique. Speak theoretically. Most importantly, here were people who carried a long tradition of parlor Shakespeare to the present day.

By “parlor Shakespeare” I mean a romanticized practice all-but-outdated of individuals assembling to read aloud together for each other. “You be Romeo and I’ll be Juliet. Here’s a Norton…. Go.” This sort of chicanery is certainly not the soul purpose of the Pawling Shakespeare Club, but I have been told that it is of primary interest to club members. And I, personally, could not be more delighted.

Here’s a little tidbit for you; the word “audience” shares the same etymology as the word “audio” (the Latin word “audire”, “to hear”). Perhaps the connection seems obvious now that I’ve put the two words together, but I know I didn’t make it until it was pointed out to me. This little factoid becomes important imminently. In modern times, we assemble as an audience to “see a play”. In Shakespeare’s time, an audience would assemble to “hear a play”. The distinction is abundantly clear, and one lost to our visually-driven culture. What with film, television, video games, computer screens, and a plethora of other digital media, we are a culture that demands and craves constant visual stimulation. Without it, we (literally) tune out.

Perhaps this is why modern audiences sometimes find Shakespeare’s plays so inaccessible. You ask any High Schooler who hates Shakespeare (and my grandmother will gleefully reveal that once upon a time I was one of them) and that teenager will tell you it is because she finds dear William difficult to read. Well there’s a few good reasons for that. The first is that Shakespeare was never meant to be read, it was meant to be heard. Take this famous example;

Richard: Now is the winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke…

(Richard III I I 1-2). Reading this line, you say “Certainly, Son of York, we know who that is… it’s a man who was born into the house of York”. If you know a little something about the play, perhaps you even say, “Oh, check it out, he’s talking about Edward”. But what you probably do not say is what you miss by not hearing the line. Read the line out loud to yourself. Go on. Do it. Nobody’s watching. Okay, maybe if you’re in a library you may want to wait until you get home to do so, but at least try to whisper it.

Get anything you didn’t get before? How about a nice little double entendre? Take a gander at this… The winter is a time of cold. It is turned into glorious summer by a change in temperature. How else is a change in temperature created but by the presence of the sun? Try reading the lines again, but this time, read them this way…

Richard: Now is the winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Sun of Yorke…

The meaning is similar, but certainly tweaked. The Sun of Yorke evokes an image of Edward not just as the glorious monarch of England with his household heraldry wafting behind him in an action-movie-style breeze, but also one that will warm and please the world. He begins to have cherubim qualities, a golden halo that surrounds and suffuses those around him. Moreover, he appears to us in a sort of Monty-Python’s-God-esque motif (a la this). Shakespeare uses the verbal double entendre which his audio-centric audience would certainly have been sensitive to to establish Edward as a cosmic force; not just of an age, but for all time.

Thereby, if a group of people merely read Shakespeare and absorb him through the eyes, they miss an entire world of the playwright’s intention. This is part of what makes Shakespeare so important to experience rather than read. He is a playwright of the senses and much be treated as such.  Read.  Aloud.  Together.  

So back in the wine cellar, while we chatted and I waxed poetic about the quirks and eccentricities of the first folio that make it a text worthy of note rather than to be shoved to the back of the bookcase, it occurred to me. Though these people were hedge scholars, though they were brought together by interest rather than any expertise in the material (don’t get me wrong, there were certainly experts in fields other than Early Modern Theatre sitting in that room with me), they had caught onto something entirely lost upon most modern readers.

Shakespeare is communal. It brings us together as audiences, certainly, but also as friends. If we can sit in parlors and debate the meaning of Olivia’s epically cryptic “If one should be a prey, how much the better/To fall before the Lion, then the Wolfe?” (Twelfth Night III i, 1342-43) over coffee, perhaps this discussion can bring us closer to some communal harmony. We all know that Shakespeare touches upon the raw nerve of universal humanity, perhaps discussion and discovery of this can bring us together as humans.

Like any member of the Pawling Shakespeare Club can attest to, it can certainly bring us together as colleagues and friends. Especially if there are snickerdoodles involved.

>The Twelfth Day of Christmas

>In the spirit of the holiday season (what? It’s not New Years yet and we still have a few nights of Chanukah left, folks!) I would like to take a moment to reflect upon what is often viewed as Mister Shakespeare’s most festive play: Twelfth Night (or What you Will).

Twelfth Night’s title refers to the celebration of the twelfth night of Christmas. While in this day and age twelfth night really only matters in a popular Christmas Carol whose words nobody seems to be able to remember (FIIIIVE GOLDEN RIIIINGS!), the Elizabethans celebrated twelfth night with full holiday gusto. The celebration would have been complete with music, dance, feasting and (of course) a play. The popular opinion is that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night for the 1601 celebration of twelfth night held at Whitehall. We know for certain that the show was performed at Candlemas (February 2) of 1602 at Middle Temple Hall.

Twelfth Night is the only play of Shakespeare’s to have a subtitle. “What you Will”. This pairing of titles has always struck me as rather odd, for neither of them have really anything to do with the content of play itself. It is almost as if Shakespeaere dashed off the show in time for twelfth night but had no time to title it. I can picture the exchange backstage now- “WILL! They’re announcing your show, what should they call it?” “Oh, I don’t know Henslowe. What’s today? Twelfth night? What you will.”

Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is an amalgamation of various plot items which are familiar to the Shakespearean cannon. It can be argued that, in his rush to put together a show for the twelfth night celebration, Shakespeare just threw a bunch of the “old tricks” into a blender and got Twelfth Night. Indeed, we have the story of a separated pair of identical twins (and all the hilarity and mistaken identity which ensues therein) as seen in The Comedy of Errors (written somewhere between 1589 and 1594). We have a woman who dresses as a man to serve a man whom she has fallen in love with as seen in Two Gentlemen of Verona (written in the early 1590’s). We have a comedic Falstaffican figure who drinks to excess and takes advantage of his rich friends (Falstaff was first introduced in Henry IV i– written around 1597). And last but not least, we have a false love letter written by a smart woman as a tool to manipulate her arch nemesis into tomfoolery as seen in The Merry Wives of Windsor (written in the late 1590s).

Noteworthy as a decidedly fresh vein for Shakespeare is the character of Feste, a new breed of fool for our bard. With the departure of Will Kempe in 1600, Robert Armin took up the role of Company Fool for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. While Kempe’s fools were outlandish and raucous and Kempe himself was known for his improvised additions to the script (some say Hamlet’s “And let those that play your Clownes speak no more than is set down for them…” (1886-1888) is a direct reference to Kempe’s antics); Armin played a much more sedate fool- world-weary with an undeniable sadness. Lear’s fool, Feste, Touchstone- these are all Armin fools. Armin was also known for his amazing voice and musical talent, which Shakespeare used to great advantage in Twelfth Night– his most musical play. Feste sings no less than five songs and sometimes more like six or seven depending on the performance.

While written for a festive occasion, in my opinion Twelfth Night is much more of a problem play than a jaunt-through-the-woods-comedy. While the play does end in the tradition mass marriage (there are three in this show- Orsino to Viola, Olivia to Sebastian and Toby to Maria), the content of the play is far from Disneyland joviality.

Death hangs ever-present over Illyria. In the first scene of Twelfth Night, we learn of one death (that of Olivia’s un-named brother) and in the second scene we learn of two more (Sebastian’s and Olivia’s father). These deaths shape the world we enter greatly- if not for Olivia’s loss, Viola could have gone straight to her rather than donning britches. If not for Viola’s loss, she would have had a male compatriot- a much less desperate situation for a traveling woman. The umbrella of death immediately gives Illyria a melancholic tone- well-suited to its histrionic Duke.

Further into the play, it becomes apparent that a great section of Twelfth Night’s plot details the antics of Sir Toby and Company to bring down Malvolio, one of the few truly stable characters in the show. Once they have him in their clutches, the crew tortures (both physically and mentally) Malvolio to his breaking point, and when he is released he receives no just revenge for his nearly entirely unwarranted and outrageously embarrassing captivity. He storms from the stage at the end of Act Five declaring “I’ll be revenged upon the whole pack of you” (2548). Malvolio’s exit casts a shadow upon the end of the play, leaving the audience unsettled and with the distinct impression that, should this show continue for another act, the jovial comedy would quickly turn into a revenge tragedy.

In addition to the madly abused Malvolio, there is a second character whose story does not bode well- though he receives no closure. Antonio, the pirate who saves Sebastian’s life, is clearly onstage for the entire fifth act. His love for Sebastian has brought him to ruin in Illyria- having started the show as the captain of one of the most successful pirating vessels in Illyria’s waters, Antonio ends the play as a prisoner of his arch-nemesis- penniless and with no hope for the requisition of his love for Sebastian. He watches the entire fifth act: the reuinion of the twins, the marriage proposals, Malvolio’s return and departure, and says nothing.

So- Death? Torture? Unresolved stories? Love unrequited? This sounds not like a happy nuptial…. Or… really… anything like Christmas… So what are directors thinking when they stage Twelfth Night as a happy-go-lucky, festive and inviting piece of theatre right around dead-pine-tree-in-the-living-room time? 

Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, there is nothing straightforward about Twelfth Night.  Yes, the darker undertones are undeniable.  But everyone gets married in the end and that’s what counts, right?  Twelfth Night also contains one of the most memorable and delightful scenes in the cannon; Act II scene iii, colloquially referred to as “the caterwauling scene”.  There is something absolutely intoxicating about seeing this scene performed- I truly think it has to do with how much childish glee the actors take in making as much drunken, rowdy noise as humanly possible (and how far they drop when Malvolio comes in to break it up).  I think that’s what makes Twelfth Night festive- the highs are incredibly high and the lows are rock-bottom (kind of like a family gathering).  What I can also say in favor of the festive choice for this show is that it leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth. Reminiscent of gingerbread cookies; it’s good because of that spicy bite, not in spite of it.