Much Ado about Joss

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

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

On the whole, I was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

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

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

working out a sequence with the fight director

working out a sequence with the fight director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…just keep swimming.

A Half-hearted Attempt at Entering the Authorship Debate

So I saw “Anonymous” this weekend.

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

De Vere and Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much Ado About Joss

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

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

Well this is an exciting move for American Shakespeare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick

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

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

I am very much looking forward to seeing it.