Spring. Finally.

It’s getting to be spring in Boston.  I know this because I’ve (regularly) been able to go for outdoor runs in the afternoon without wanting to die due to exposure.

I also know this because of the wistful glances that my students have been making out the window during class time (difficult because my classroom is actually in a basement; the windows are almost entirely below ground level and the small amount of natural light which we are graced with has to travel through small slits on the level of the ceiling).

I also also know this because of the inevitable yearning for even less structured days; the bulk of my grading is pretty much done at this point (there will be one final push in a few weeks, but the major written assignment are all taken care of), my trips to campus are growing fewer in frequency by the day (also due partly to the fact that I’m not in a research crunch right now, but rather a writing stretch), and I have fewer and fewer meetings on my calendar.

I also also also know this because when I look at the syllabus, we’re quickly running out of class days.  And when we run out of class days, then we run out of class.  And when we run out of class, then I get to take a short break before running brake-neck into the next series of engagements (I’ve got several summer tasks already lines up and I can just smell a couple others on the air).

In short: spring is a big fat tease.  It tantalizes with promises of nice weather (I went for so many walks this weekend; I even got to take my whip out for the first bullwhip practice of

A day at the park.  This is perfectly normal, right?

A day at the park. This is perfectly normal, right?

the season… surprisingly my skill didn’t degrade at all over the winter, which gives me hope for learning a couple new tricks in the next few months), it shows you the slightest bit of freedom before yanking it away again, and it simply revels in your glorious suffering.  Sure, you might be able to work with the window open these days, but that wonderful fresh air which beckons you outside sings its siren song to lure you to inevitable lack of work ethic.  Spring encourages lackadaisicality and I will never forgive it for that.

Of course, I will also never forgive it for the havoc it wrecks on my sinuses.  Stupid tress.  Stupid pollen.  If any other living thing assaulted me suchly with its reproductive organs, I would be filing a restraining order and calling my shrink on a daily basis for assistance in dealing with the trauma.  No means no, adolescent trees.  No means no.

Anyway, mostly this year I’m holding it against spring that it chose to show up so late to the party.  Not that I’m not happy to see it, just that I’m grumpy it made me wait so long.  It thinks it can make up having to deal with winter’s creepy show-up-at-your-door-unannounced tendencies for an extra month by just being its “awesome” self?  I don’t THINK so, spring.  You’re going to have some real groveling to do before I forgive you for that little trick.  So get going with trying to make it up to me; I’ll just wait here until I feel like you’ve done enough to put you back in my good graces again.

Snow Woes

My brain is a little numb.  I’ve been working very hard for a very long time, and there really isn’t a break in sight.  Well… there kinda is, but not one that I’m getting any close to (in a matter of a month I can take a pseudo-break but I can’t call it a “real” break since the semester will have just started and, thusly, I’ll be teaching at that point).  For now, I’m buried in books and, no matter how much reading I do, the book fort never seems to get any smaller (probably due to the fact that I keep piling library books on top of it even as I read them out from the bottom of the stacks).

To make matters worse, over the weekend we got our first major snowstorm here in the

From last year and with an APPROPRIATE amount of snow. Harumph.

Northeast.  This at least gave me the ability to successfully test my hypothesis that I would rather do any other task in my household than shovel.  As I suited up to deal with the icy toboggan-trail that had become my driveway, I couldn’t help but wryly remark to myself that snow days really ain’t what they used to be.

The funny thing about snow in Boston is you’d think that, since it’s a city inhabited by New Englanders, nobody would have a problem with it.  They’d go about their business without much to-do and continue on their merry ways amidst the downfall.  But no.   Somehow, inevitably, the first snow of the year transforms the city into a conglomerate of royal jerks who have all miraculously forgotten how to drive.  Additionally, even though the roads are still slippy/slidey, Bostonians think that snow on the sidewalk makes it acceptable to walk in the road rather than tromp on their nice, safe, designated walkway.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many pedestrians I almost ran down on my way home from rehearsal last night.

As an added bonus, since my driveway is uphill both ways and the nice fluffy pillows of wonder that fell from the sky this weekend froze over with about an inch of caked-on skating-rink quality ice, my back seems to have called up its union and gone on strike in protest of hard manual labor.

And we’re expecting more snow tomorrow.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be in my cave.  Grumbling.

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.

 

Mid Semester Slump: Fall Edition

Even though it’s well past midterms, I’m definitely feeling the effects of mid-semester crunch.

This is partly due to how my semester is scheduled (two conferences in three weeks will make a girl extremely tired; especially when she’s still dealing with orals, work for various professional committees she’s on, teaching her class, and still trying near-futilely to catch up on sleep/sanity from the summer).  But I think there’s also a certain degree of universality to it: suddenly, those piles of grading on your desk have a new urgency.  The star-struck wonder and optimistic first few weeks of any fresh start (a semester included) has faded; this is where the real work begins.

With fatigue setting in, I’m having to return to my old “find the energy” axioms.  Here are a few that are keeping me going right now; hopefully some of them can also add some inspiration to your day.

1)   It’s fall in New England and everything is beautiful.  I can barely move without

Captured on a walk yesterday!

Captured on a walk yesterday!

having to pause for a foliage picture (thanks to a new-found interest in photography apps for my pocket-robot, I have some great tools with which to capture these).

2)   Fall also means pumpkin flavored everything.  Though by virtue of having discovered a wonderful pumpkin spice flavor syrup recipe I am no longer limited by the calendar as to when I consume my pumpkin coffee, it’s still comforting to know that on days when I just don’t have time to make myself a latte I can rely on good ol’ dunks to provide.

3)   Soon it will be winter.  Winter is when a break happens.  Winter is also when my favorite holiday happens.  This also means that, very soon, I will have full social license to blast my Christmas Music for at least a few months before it becomes taboo again to do so until next year.  Believe you me, nothing brings a smile to a poor downtrodden graduate student like pop culture icons belting Christmas tunes.

 4)   While conference season is stressful, it also gives me an excuse to wear my favorite tweed jacket.  Though I haven’t had a moment to install the requisite leather elbow patches, that particular upgrade is definitely in the works and I hope to have it in place by the next wave of professional gigs which require professorly clothing.

The blue mountains as seen from my plane during the fly-over last week

The blue mountains as seen from my plane during the fly-over last week

5)   Despite all efforts by nature to kill it, my herb garden is still going strong.  As is my aloe plant.  For those not in the know, I (until very recently) was self-titled DANIOR MURDERER OF VEGETATION (caps required for proper voice intonation).  When my trusty bamboo plant was killed by a tragic fungal infection last year, I thought my days of caring for flora were over.  However, convinced by my own tenacity, I managed to overcome my grief and acquire several new plant-friends.  I don’t want to say this too loudly for fear that they might overhear and decide that it’s a great time to kick the proverbial bucket, but they may just be long-lasting installments in my life/office.

6)   Even though I’m really tired, I know that I’m just one workout away from an endorphin high and a quick battery recharge.  It’s not a permanent solution, but it definitely helps me plug along and plow through the multitudes of material on my desk (today’s challenge: several period fencing manuals, most unavailable in modern typesetting… the joys of archival/textual scholarship).

And on that note, perhaps hitting the gym will give me a little pick-me-up and help me through the rest of this afternoon.

I hope you’re having a productive day, and that the mid-semester slump isn’t hitting you too hard!

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.

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!

Crossing a Finish Line

Alright folks,

I can tell you now, officially, with all certainty, that it’s over.

I’ve completed all coursework for my PhD.

I wish I could say that this momentous occasion feels as wonderful as it sounds, but truthfully I’m just exhausted.  I find that, without fail, the moment I stop running everything catches up with me.  All the stress, emotional turmoil, mental fatigue, physical challenges, everything I’ve been running from since mid-semester just slams right into me and belly-flops me into the ground.

It doesn’t help that coursework is widely regarded as the easiest portion of the PhD.  Which is not to say that it was easy.  If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you can attest to just a fraction of the politically-correct things I have to say about coursework.  Somehow, all that build-up of blood, sweat, and tears only makes this next step even more daunting.

So it does and doesn’t feel like an accomplishment to have survived this long.

I’m loving my couch hard core right now and I don’t have many deep thoughts to think.  I lieu of those, have a watch of the films that we made last weekend!

(The second film is a making-of documentary with a twist available here on Malarkey’s website.)

Happy summer, everyone!

Afterwards

It’s difficult to know what to say in the wake of tragedy.  This kind of thing effects different people in different ways and, not being someone gifted/cursed with a great deal of empathy, it’s double difficult for me to come to any conclusion about something appropriate to relate.

The last lines of Shakespeare’s tragedies are generally attempts by his very human characters to break the impossible tension of the play’s events.  Often these words are uttered over a stage strewn with corpses; the trail of ruin that true tragedy leaves in its wake.

Instead of trying to come up with something to say myself, I thought I’d take a moment to survey these lines for you in hopes that they will provide something more profound than any axiom I could utter.

Stay safe, everyone.

“My rage is gone;
And I am struck with sorrow. Take him up.
Help, three o’ the chiefest soldiers; I’ll be one.
Beat thou the drum, that it speak mournfully:
Trail your steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory. Assist.” –Aufidius, Coriolanus, 5.6

Aufidius, seeing Coriolanus dead, feels sorrow for his nemesis.  His tenderness towards Coriolanus and willingness to honor his mortal enemy in death shows a true humanity to Aufidius; the man, not the soldier, closes this show.

“Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.” –Fortinbras, Hamlet, 5.2

This one has given me particular cause for ire over the years due to directors purposefully misinterpreting it to mean “take Horatio out back and shoot him”.  I’ve already expounded upon why this is a bad idea so I don’t feel the need to hammer it home here.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” – Albany, King Lear, 5.3

Perhaps the most profound of the end-tags; I’ve always had a special fondness for this one since it can apply to not just a tragedy, but also to many other aspects of life when politics is involved.  For example: it was an utterance first delivered me by a professor when we were in conference before a talkback with an important director whose work we had just seen.

“Gratiano, keep the house,
And seize upon the fortunes of the Moor,
For they succeed on you. To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!
Myself will straight aboard: and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate.” – Lodovico, Othello, 5.2

Lodovico’s instinct to take charge of the situation and his burden to inform the people of what has transpired is a burden that many leaders will feel during such times of crisis.  Having to stay strong for other people makes us strong within ourselves.  Lodovico, rather than break down completely, takes it upon himself to be a pillar for the people.

“A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” – Prince, Romeo and Juliet, 5.3

Perhaps one of the most famous last lines, owing perhaps to the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet portion of Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr [abrgd]…. Or maybe that’s just how I remember it.

My most profound sympathies go out to the people effected by yesterday’s events.  Stay strong, Boston.