Hello from the finals front!

Things are really starting to get hairy here. I’ve pinned down my seminar paper topics, I’m beginning to push up on some deadlines, and the book fort is full to toppling (though I did manage to return 25 books to the library yesterday with the help of some very sturdy reusable shopping bags). In addition to my own deadlines, I have the students’ deadlines to worry about and, what with the hurricane having set all of us back, what I am certain were some very well-planned due dates have become a muddle of insanity and piles upon piles of things for me to do over the next couple weeks.

In light of this, it is difficult for me to see these next few days as holidays. Yes, campus was technically closed today; I was still in dropping off papers and picking up books. No, I

the pile of drop-off books from the other day riding securely in my passenger seat. Also, validation for when I say “Shakespeare is my co-pilot”.

don’t have to go to class tomorrow; but I have still been up since before the sun working steadily on my piles of to-dos.

Despite this, I would like to take a moment now (as I do every year) to think about the things I am well and truly thankful for.

Inter-library loan; making it so that I don’t have to drive all over the city state country to hunt down the research materials I need. Thank you, ILL and the Boston Library Consortium, for bringing books in a steady flow directly to my home library.

My family who puts up with random phone calls at odd times of the day with the usual “sorry I haven’t called in a while, been really busy, I’m working on this new project about Shakespeare as performed in the [eighteenth/nineteenth/seventeenth] century by [aristocratic hacks/black people/circus clowns]. I’m working really hard for that class I’m TAing and I have a TON of grading on my desk right now, but I have to go because I’m on my way to [class/the library/a meeting/rehearsal] so… love you! Call you later!”

My dear friends who make my life a happier place and remind me that despite my best efforts, I am not a research machine and do occasionally need to leave my desk in order to make eye contact with actual human beings. Special shout-outs go to my gay best friend who knows both how to hash a research problem with me and the fastest way to make me forget about whatever the day’s stress was, my roommate who knows not to make eye contact with me before 10AM and that the best way to appease the savage beast is to feed me, my girls’ weekend girls who are always there for me (if not in person then in well-timed letters and boxes of comfort-yarn), and my Partner in Crime without whom I would be well and truly lost (and much sadder for the wear).

The faith of my department (which, for those who are keeping track, hasn’t gotten rid of me yet so I must be doing something right).

Totally my fairy godfather; this was taken at my MA graduation.

The aforementioned Best Professor in the World; my academic fairy godfather who somehow knows from two to three states away precisely when I’m in my darkest hours of crisis. Without even having to send up a bat-signal, I always seem to receive an e-mail of some kind from him during my most hopeless moments.

The theatre, my man Will, and all those who are keeping him alive onstage. Live theatre makes life worth living, and the people who make live theatre are no less than great magicians of our time. This means you, Bob Colonna.

And you, dear reader, because without you I would be talking to an empty room. And, really, there’s nothing engaging about a crazy person ranting about her insane life to an empty room.

So have a good holiday, take some time off, and for the sake of all things Bardy walk away from your desk for at least a few hours. Personally, I’m going to go finish packing and then I have a date with a turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Definitely As you Like it

Sunday night, I caught the closing performance of Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre’s As You Like It in Roger William’s Memorial Park out in Providence.  I think I’ve waxed poetic enough about Artistic Director/head honcho Bob Colonna’s Shakespeare chaps, so I don’t really need to drive the point home.  Suffice to say that the production was definitely another feather in Colonna’s cap and I was particularly tickled to see it, as As You is one of my personal favorites.

Colonna plays fast and loose with the text, but his panache in doing so leaves even a text

Ryan Hanley as a weasely Oliver and Patrick Cullen as a fiery Orlando

purist like me satisfied.  The benefit to this method of engagement is that Colonna’s shows always offer up something new.  I know that when I see TRIST perform, I’m always going to be challenged in my understanding of the text and delivered a show that adds something real, tangible, and different to the performance history of any given play.

In this case, Colonna eliminated Adam entirely (a move which, admittedly, when he first told me about it gave me some serious doubts).  Substantiating the exposition that Adam adds with some cameos by other court characters, it actually wound up working pretty well.

The thing about As You is that it’s a play about the woods.  As such, the sooner we can be dispensed with the unavoidable business in the court, the sooner the real play can start.  My favorite companion attended with me and mentioned that he felt Rosalind was much stronger in the second act than the first (Colonna stuck his intermission between III iii and III iv just after Rosalind trots off with Orlando and Celia having promised to cure Orlando of his love by pretending to be Rosalind).  Well, that’s because Rosalind doesn’t really get to do anything in the court.

Rosalind’s most salient attribute is her ability as a puppetmaster.  She gets what she wants by adeptly manipulating those around her.  She is, however, confined in this ability until the forest frees her from her petticoats and she is able to take on man’s attire.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s first act, filled to the brim with pageantry and courtly

extravagance, tends to just drag in modern performance.  It’s full of important exposition and a great fight scene, but it doesn’t have much by way of entertainment value for the real crux of the show.  Two thirds of the characters we see at court are never seen again, and two thirds of the characters whom we spend the rest of the play with are nowhere to be found at court.  For that, this first act has to be there; without it we have no idea where we are coming from (and, for that matter, going back to at the play’s end), but really the best policy for dealing with it is to cut where you can and run through it at a break-neck pace.

Well, that’s what Colonna did.  By dispatching Adam, he managed to shave some good time off of the top load of the show and get us quicker to where we really needed to be.

Another portion of this play that doesn’t read in contemporary performance without a WHOLE LOT of careful finagling is IV ii; the deer scene.  Yes, yes, important in scholarship.  Yes, yes, forest of Arden Shakespeare’s childhood maybe he poached deer as a kid and this is some Freudian jaunt into biographical studies.  Yes, yes, Jaques’ connection to the forest blah blah.  For that, I’ve never seen a production that really pulled this scene off and made it seem anything other than an odd sidebar to what’s already a long, broad, rambling show.  Colonna side-stepped the issue entirely by cutting the scene and replacing it with a clever bit for Amiens/Jaques involving Amiens’ song and Jaques being a pompous jerk.  Colonna’s bit, while not something that I would have thought permissible with any show that I was specifically working on, read beautifully and elegantly covered the hole left by the missing scene.  Bravo, revisionism! (…don’t tell my M4M director that I said that….)

Lydea Irwin as a tired Celia carried by the rambunctious Mark Carter as Touchstone and Kristina Drager as Rosalind

The other thing that I truly have to applaud Colonna for is maintaining a sense of connection with the audience.  TRIST has a history with the fourth wall; a very sordid past in which the relationship has been broken enough times to warrant its own daytime drama.  The bottom line is this: I love outdoor Shakespeare.  I truly do.  I love theatre in urban spaces.  But if you’re going to perform outside, you need to be prepared for all sorts of interruptions; from pedestrians, to the sounds of passing trains.  And these interruptions are universal; the actors will hear them, the audience will hear them, and there’s little to nothing that can be done about them.

So instead of pretending that that motorcycle isn’t drowning out your text and just trying to schlog through anyway, why not acknowledge the motorcycle, pause for a moment, then move on?  You’re going to lose your audience’s attention anyway (that can be assured by the astoundingly loud vrooms that that little engine puts off as it stops at the stop-light that’s two hundred yards away from your playing space).  Why struggle to preserve the integrity of a fourth wall whose integrity is already compromised?

Colonna gets that and the small moments of improvisations spurred by outside forces (a harried Jaques had a brief moment of mimed drag racing, and Orlando and Ganymede a half-muttered conversation about trains) brought the audience closer to the text rather than alienating us from it.  Rather than rejecting the world around it, this show embraced the outside forces at play, welcoming them into its world and utilizing them to become closer to the audience who was also experiencing them.

I wish I could give you ticket info, but as the show closed Sunday that’s all she wrote.  Colonna and the gang will be back in the fall with a production of Richard III that is sure to please (at least, that’s what he promises me, and he has so-far never let me down).

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!

>Verse like Pros

>I saw something amazing this past Friday.

I was sitting on a blanket in the grass of a park in Providence. I should qualify this statement a little. Even though this place is on the books as a National Park (it has Park Rangers and everything), it’s really just a slip of green cut between two bustling streets. Right on the Providence River there is a road. Right on that road there is a triangle of grass and trees which constitutes Roger Williams National Park. Inside this park is a stretch of pavement and a few picnic benches which set the stage for the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry VIII.

The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre has been on a sabbatical from the Shakespeare scene for twenty years. Director Bob Colonna began TRIST performing on barges in the Providence harbor and has since graduated to this tiny strip of paradise (after aforementioned break from all things Bardy).

The production was billed to me as what amounted to community-theatre-Shakespeare. It was done with non-professional actors (a great deal of them college students) in makeshift costumes using clip lights gaffed to telescoping camera stands and a light board jury-rigged inside a wine box. The audience sat on blankets in the grass or metal folding chairs and were cautioned to sit close to the actors as there was no sound system and frequent interruptions were provided by modern traffic from the streets on either side of this thin little strip.

I am a snob. I will be the first to admit it. I was not expecting much.

But wowy zowy did this production deliver.

It wasn’t stellar subject matter. Henry VIII is a cantankerous, contentious, contemptuous piece, most suspect not even written by Shakespeare himself (and frankly I personally fall into this camp). The verse is stilted and fumbling, the plot structure is like a movie trailer of Shakespeare’s canon (stealing famous bits from other plays and mish-moshing them together to create something “new”). To top it off, I am always wary when I see actors wearing “costumes” pulled from their personal closets.

But sitting there, watching this simple, breathless production, I couldn’t help but be amazed at what was before me. Here, under Colonna’s guidance, was a troop of individuals with nominal training spouting verse like pros (pun thoroughly intended). The simplicity of the delivery punctuated the actuality of each moment. The words weren’t bogged down by ACTING or some high-brow attempt to make this reality, this was simply real. Henry himself was commanding and rotund, the Cardinal was thoroughly menacing, Katherine of Aragon was sufficiently regal to carry through her moments of adolescent petulance, and (most importantly) I didn’t look at my watch once throughout the entire production. Music provided by the multi-talented cast wafted in and out of this gleeful romp (didn’t think you’d ever hear Henry VIII referred to as a “gleeful romp”, did you?) setting appropriate tones for the unfolding drama. When the show was cheesy, it was delightfully self-aware. When it was dramatic, it was breathtakingly natural. The stakes continually rose and fell along with the zodiac of the country as travesty and joy befell the princely affairs played before us.

In short, I was mesmerized. Why isn’t more Shakespeare like this? This production, a simple affair echoing its forefathers with groundlings on their blankets in the grass and more prudish types on un-cushioned chairs behind, is (to me) the essence of Shakespeare. There I was with just the language and the actors, and no pretense between. It was as though I could reach out and touch the Bard himself, as though his world had become part of my world, and that, my friends, is good theatre. On the grass, under the stars, wrapped in a blanket to stave off the unseasonable chill, I was seeing something which gave me hope for any person who says “I can’t understand Shakespeare”. This free evening of entertainment, held in a public place, is not only monetarily and physically accessible to everyone, it is also intellectually accessible. Clear as a tumbler of good vodka, precise as an actor who has been forced to bartend to make ends meet cashing out at the end of the night, and all this from a group of unpaid non-professionals.

Which to me begs the question: how did we allow our Shakespeare to become so bogged down with snobbery and congested with befuddling intellectualism that we lost touch of this? Why is it that a big-budget production (which many consider too high-brow to even attend) is the first thing which comes to the minds of most Americans when they think of our dear old bard? And why is it that I cringe at the mere thought of unschooled amateurs mouthing the words of Dear William when I will happily gobble up any High School Musical that crosses my path?

I refuse to believe that I am the only one. Somewhere along the way, Shakespeare grew too good for free evenings of entertainment in public parks. He grew too godly for laymen. He was no longer fuel for mechanicals, but rather was reserved as a feast for Kings.

Perhaps it is time for some re-examination. As the internet is revolutionizing television by provided cheap and freely available alternatives, so should productions like this revolutionize and challenge live theatre. If the amateurs continue to cook up quality, the pros are going to have to reach to compensate. And I can only hope that they do. A community rooted in creativity cannot afford to rest upon laurels, it must constantly reach, strive, and adjust. It must challenge itself or die. And everyone (theatre person or not) can afford to take a page out of Bob Colonna’s book: re-discover, re-invent and above all KEEP IT SIMPLE.

If you would like to catch Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre’s Henry VIII (and you should), visit this page for more information. You can also find them on facebook here.