Three is Company

Right now, I’m living with some really interesting roommates.

You may recall last year at about this time when I announced that my current couch-surfer was RSC director Peter Brook. This is a similar situation. I find that, when you’re truly in the thralls of research, the process takes on a body of its own. It whispers to you in the night, alternately taunting and teasing you, sometimes telling you things you had never thought of before (though for me, it usually waits to do that until I’m in the shower).

Right now, my research doesn’t have a face (it’s so much easier to personify when it does). More, it has a body. I’m living with a few different projects and, consequently, a few different plays.

As you know by now, I’ve been serving as dramaturge for Tufts’ February production of

book piles next to my desk… teetering dangerously on the brink of collapse

Measure for Measure. Over the summer, the director and I put hours into creating a two-hour cut of the script (no small task, especially for a text-purist like yours truly). Now, we’re girding to enter the rehearsal process. This also means that it’s time for me to send my deep thoughts on the play to the theatre manager for inclusion in the program/department newsletter thingy. I’m also preparing to teach what we’ve lovingly dubbed “Shakespeare Boot Camp” this weekend; a three hour text workshop tag-team-taught by myself and the AD in order to ensure that our cast doesn’t go into the rehearsal process without some tactics to deal with Shakespeare’s language. All of these things should be a lot of fun, it just means that dystopian governments and broken chastity vows are constantly at the back of my mind. Not the most pleasant backdrop for your day, let me tell you.

There’s a lot at stake in Measure (and certainly a lot at stake which speaks to us particularly in an election year). We’re dealing with a city built on crumbling foundations. We’re dealing with an aging government that can no longer connect to its people. We’re dealing with extremists; extreme absolutists, extreme libertines, and extreme fundamentalists. We’re dealing with characters who disguise themselves for various reasons and utilize that disguise to trick each other into pursuing courses of action which would otherwise have proved impossible (or at least unpalatable).

We’re also dealing with a comedy that isn’t all that comedic. The ending seems a mere nod at the conventions of comedy (every one of the play’s four marriages are forced/arranged either by law or circumstance). Death is an ever-present force on the stage and at least one character suffers a grisly demise during the play’s action. The play includes a rape or near-rape (depending on how it’s staged). Oh certainly we have a few clowns to lighten the mood, but there is nothing airy or fairy about Measure‘s deeper themes (or even its not-so-deep themes).

The instinct to call Measure a “problem play” and leave things at that is one that I find horribly simplistic. It’s like calling Richard III a history. While I understand the need for short-hand categories, reducing Shakespeare’s more complicated works to one catch-all word does them a disservice. Yup, Measure has its problems, but the play is so much more than those problems. The problems open avenues of exploration through which we can delve into something deeper; what makes a comedy? What does a comedy need to have? If a play has all those things, can it still be something else?

My desk right now with books and sundry stacked work

In addition to this, a second specter has been haunting my footsteps similar to its iconic title character’s father. Hamlet seems to be everywhere I turn (more so this semester than usual). In a little over a week, I will be in Nashville at ASTR speaking about a paper I wrote which involves Garrick, Hamlet, Shakespeare, and the canonization of all three. Hamlet remains the most-referenced play in my studies, there are at least two productions of the show going on in Boston right now, and I’m relatively certain that the other night I dreamed I was performing the “too too solid flesh” speech in front of an audience of extremely intelligent (and extremely receptive!) chimpanzees…

Is Hamlet is in this fall? Is it my personal bias? Or is there just something about Hamlet?

That’s not even to consider the two research projects/seminar papers which are still in their budding stages at the moment. I haven’t yet immersed myself in them completely enough to be having haunting visions or dreams, but it’ll happen sooner rather than later.

Suffice to say that things are getting pretty crowded over here. I’m pretty sure that I could build a fort with the library books on the floor next to my desk, and (as usual) the deeper I plunge into the semester, the more appealing this course of action becomes.

Password is “foul fiend flibbertigibbet”. No boys allowed.

…except my man Will. And maybe a certain Danish Prince.


One of the perks of my profession is that I get to sit in on a vast array of different classes.  Some of these are my own classes designed to be taught to myself and my colleagues, some are classes which I am assisting in some capacity and thereby are designed to be taught to those slightly lower on the intellectual hierarchy.

And because I do get to sit in on this wide array of classes, when I notice a pattern it’s generally something fairly universally applicable (as universally applicable as anything truly can be).

So, for the past few weeks, a pattern has come to my attention and it’s really beginning to sit funny under my skin.  In all of my classes, at least once but generally multiple times a class session, Hamlet has been brought up not just as the iconographic English-language play, but the iconographic play of the entire modern Western theatre canon.

By “sit funny” I don’t mean “sit wrongly” or “feel badly”, I just mean that it’s come up so very frequently that I can’t help but be astounded by it.  Obviously my man Will is a deeply influential force in my life, but the fact that he’s mentioned so often in these classes implies something that I’ve always assumed, but have only rarely paused to examine deeply.

iconic shot of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

In the paper I am currently working on for ASTR, I argue that the creation of Hamlet as an icon is deeply wrapped in the creation of David Garrick’s career.  David Garrick was eighteenth century London’s (arguably) most famous actor, and if not actor then certainly most famous Shakespearean.  Garrick had a penchant for Hamlet (and, for that matter, Hamlet) and had many professional interactions with the role and the text that worked to cement both in the eighteenth century consciousness (I’m being purposefully vague here, while I’m happy to bat around general concepts, I’m not comfortable publishing my research notes on the internet).  In my opinion, this is truly the beginning of the ruff-wearing, skull-holding, brooding prince as an icon of the theatre.

The continuance of this icon and its permeation into the college classroom tells me several things:

1) It is a fairly wide-reaching trope.  The fact that a professor, striving to explain a concept to a roomful of undergrads, can reach for Hamlet as a cardinal example and expect the entire room to understand what he is saying, uncovers certain societal expectations of the people sitting in that classroom.  Both undergraduate classes which I’m sitting in on are taught via the theatre department, but only one of them is an “upper-level” course (i.e.: has prerequisites).  Thereby, while these students are expected to have a passing interest in theatre, they are not all expected to have proficiency with theatre.  Thereby, the expectation that the modern, educated young person will understand Hamlet as an icon is an expectation that can be carried into the real world.  Educated people know Hamlet, even if they aren’t educated in the theatre per say.

2) It is an accepted trope.  Not once have any of the students disputed the idea that Hamlet is a go-to for archetypical modern Western theatre.  In fact, utilizing Shakespeare (and, particularly, Hamlet) as an authority is a tradition almost as old as Shakespeare himself (another topic I’m grappling with in my paper, but this is going to become its own project imminently).

3) It is a wide-ranging trope.  Again, I live in the Theatre Department, so that certainly limits my sample size.  Outside of that limit, I feel as though I’ve heard the trope repeated enough that I can say with some surety that it’s not just theatre people who do this.  How often have we seen the aforementioned image in advertising, cartoons, popular culture?  The ruff and skull image seem to be shorthand for “theatre” just as “Band-Aid” is shorthand for “sticky bandage with sterile pad for small wound”.

ll of this leads me to the conclusion that the Hamlet connection is a true societal meme;

Hanging with Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon

passed down from one generation to another in a self-perpetuating state of self-referentiality.  I plan to keep an eye on the Hamlet meme in hopes that it will spark something deeper, but for the moment my brain space has only enough room for pattern recognition.

So keep an eye out.  I’m thinking of making Hamlet-spotting a sport.

(Rosalind update: As You is looking great!  We go into tech Sunday and open for an invited dress next Thursday before real opening night Friday.  EXCITED!)

Is This the Beginning of Zombie Shakespeare?

I just got done with a dramaturgy session with my director for Measure for Measure (the show I’m dramaturging this year at Tufts and keep promising to fill you in on).  During the drive home, I was all prepared to write a nice long post about the process, how things are going, what a dramaturge actually does, etc.

…but then one of my friends posted this trailer on my facebook wall which clearly made it all but impossible to do anything but comment upon it.

I’m so egregiously excited that I’m having trouble formulating words.  Zombies?  Hamlet?  Spoof movies?  These are a few of my favorite things.  Add chocolate peanut butter, yarn, and shopping and you’d have a giant ball of Dani-crack.

I will begin with the following confession: I have seen nothing more about this film than this trailer.  I’ve done a small amount of research just to try and ground myself in some film-facts and figure out when it will be released to the general public (no answer as of now, by the way, much to my chagrin and dissatisfaction).

But based on what I’ve seen, I couldn’t be more excited if I tried.  A movie that deals with Shakespeare reverently but playfully?  A movie that makes fun of itself while simultaneously touting some good old fashioned Shakespearean values?  A movie that has the potential to be one of the most hilarious Shakes-scene of our times?

The film’s basic premise is that a group of indie film-makers want to make a version of Hamlet but lack the budget for a Kenneth Brannaugh-esque period piece.  Jokingly, they say the only thing they could make on their given budget is a B zombie film… so they solve their problem with a creative re-mix of both.  Midway through, their backer is found dead and so they become enrapt in a plot to cover up her death to ensure a green light for their film.  I’m sure that this causes plenty of outside complications as well, but I’m less concerned about those at the moment.

With the prospect of a zombie Hamlet, My mind immediately jumped to the possibility of the Norwegians being zombies led by a sort of lich-lord Fortinbras.  Denmark could almost literally become a prison due to high security measures set in place in order to prevent further zombie invasions and, upon the collapse of the court at the end, the zombie masses enter to find the corpses of the Denmarkian royalty.

The inclusion of zombies also problematizes death within the play.  What kind of outbreak are we dealing with?  Runners or Shamblers?  Nanovirus or witch doctors?  If nanovirus, then Claudius could well be made into an arch-villain having infected King Hamlet with the virus and making him patient zero of the outbreak.  Hamlet’s ghost could instead be a return of the shambling King as a sort of covert super-zombie come to wreck revenge upon the individual responsible for the attack.  If Witch Doctor induced, there could still be a measure of this creation-against-creator as King Hamlet would be unable to lift a hand against his Lord and Master now-King Cladius and thus must have his son act as agent.  Alternately, in a world where zombies are created by magic, ghosts become equally plausible.  King Hamlet could be a sort of revenant, requiring a flesh body to perform deeds upon the living and thus spurring his son to the task.

 This also complicates Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, as when he hears a rustling in the curtains of his mother’s bedchamber he could potentially believe it to be an undead foe and, thereby, shoot said foe in the head before it leapt out to attack.  Polonius becomes an unfortunate victim of the country’s political strife as opposed to the sacrificial lamb of Hamlet’s madness.

Ophelia’s death is similarly complicated, and the possibilities innate in a zombie-infested Denmark make richer her last scene in which she appears onstage having run mad.  Perhaps she has been bitten by her risen-from-the-dead father and her not-quite-a-zombie-yet fever is the cause of her madness.  Alternately, anyone can go crazy in the world of the zombie holocaust.  The uncaniness of the walking dead and the permeation of casual death into society will just do that to a person.

Also; what does this mean for Act V?  Does the royal court lay dead at the feet of the zombie invaders only to rise themselves as mindless brain-nommers?  Is Horatio the only human left alive in a world now peopled by the walking dead?

Since the film isn’t actually a zombie version of Hamlet but rather about the making of a zombie Hamlet, I don’t truly expect my questions to be answered.  I do, however, very much look forward to seeing it and firmly believe that I will have found a new go-to “bad day” movie.

…and if anyone has the money and inclination to actually direct a production of Hamlet set

“…Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”

during the zombie holocaust, please oh please oh please hire me.  I’ll do anything to be involved in that production.  I’ll even put myself on your line and audition to be a piece of meat… I mean… actor.  But mostly, I want to find a reason to have to research what kind of duel you would possibly be able to stage while the zombie hoards were shambling at your door.  Pistols won’t cut it due to the multiple touches, but I could definitely see claymores or battleaxes coming in handy and thereby the Princes being versed in their usage… or maybe bludgeoning weapons are the way to go since cricket bats are definitely a staple of the zombie genre.  That, however, would complicate the poison premise, but we could maybe make it work somehow…

Timoncrantz and Pumbastern are Dead

Along a similar vein as last week’s post…

I recorded the talk that I gave at the Comparative Drama Conference this past weekend.  In case you didn’t catch my panel, I have uploaded the talk here for your convenient listening.

Please excuse my copious abuse of the speech disfluency “um” (especially at the beginning of the talk).  I’m fairly certain that the only reason I was able to even stand during the presentation was by sheer force of will and the amount of antibiotics coursing through my veins at the time.  Take that particular element of the presentation as a good example of what not to do when giving a talk.


Fishing for Answers

Well folks, I’m back.

It was a very nice vacation (if a little bit long) and I have a great deal to say about it.  Most of these things can be caught in the upcoming series of podcasts from yours truly and my magnificently intelligent brother.  The first should be released by the end of the week, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, while I was soaking up ALL THE DISNEY, something occurred to me.

We were walking through the Magic Kingdom when we encountered certain princes and Princesses posing for pictures (say that ten times fast).  As we walked past Ariel and Eric, we realized something.

We know that Eric is a Prince, but what (precisely) is he Prince of?

It didn’t feel like something we could walk right up and ask him… that seems petulant at best and sacrilegious at worst.  At the same time, we well and truly wondered if this whole “marry a prince” thing wasn’t even more of a sham in his case than usual.  I mean, after all, Ariel is the most gullible and least savvy of all the Disney princesses.  It would be pretty easy to convince her that one was a prince with some impressive architecture, a personalized statue, and a French chef.

To our relief, a google search provided the required answer: apparently the events of The Little Mermaid supposedly transpire in Denmark.

I’m certain you know where my mind ran with this tidbit.  I mean, it’s not like Danish Princes run around rampant in the world… clearly they are all the same mythological person.

So this could go one of two ways… either Eric is King Hamlet, or Eric is Prince Hamlet.

We don’t know much of anything about King Hamlet’s parentage or his youth.  Eric is allegedly eighteen during the events of the film, which would answer a great deal of questions about Hamlet Sr’s childhood.  Eric’s parents are conspicuously missing from the film, again consistent with the Hamlet mythology.

Okay, for this to really make sense, we would have to make the concession that Ariel changed her name at some point… but is this horribly difficult to believe?  Maybe “Gertrude” was her middle name which she then chose to go by in her land-life.  And Gertrude’s affinity for Ophelia would be easily explained if Gertrude were a mermaid.  Ophelia is the most watery character in all of Shakespeare, after all.

But this doesn’t take into account the ending of the fairy tale.  Yes, of course, in the Disney version everyone lives happily ever after blah blah blah.  But if you read the Hans Christian Anderson tale, things conclude a little differently.  In the original tale, the Little Mermaid becomes human because she is told that humans have souls and can thus live forever even after they die.  Mermaids, on the other hand, disintegrate into sea foam upon death.  The nameless Little Mermaid strives to become human so that she too may obtain eternal life instead of waft into watery nothings.  She buys a potion from the Sea Witch which will give her legs and make her dance unlike any human has ever danced, but will also make her feel as though with each step she is treading upon swords.  In addition, she may only become truly human by marrying the Prince and thus obtaining half of his soul.  If she fails to do this, then the morning after the Prince marries someone else the mermaid will melt into sea foam anyway.

Long story short, the prince marries someone else and that night the mermaid is brought a special sea witch knife by her sisters.  They say that if she uses the knife to kill the prince and allow his blood to fall upon her feet, she will become a mermaid again and not melt into seafoam in the morning.

Instead, the Little Mermaid throws herself out the window into the sea and becomes seafoam and air.  She is then given the opportunity to do good deeds and thus enter human heaven.

Okay, so Prince Eric winds up not marrying a crazy chick who drowns herself for his love?

This story doesn’t sound familiar at all.  Nope.  Especially not in relation to Danish Princes.

Yes, I know The Lion King is suppose to be the Disney Hamlet (almost painfully at this point having spent a whole semester working on a paper about it), but sometimes you just have to follow the evidence.  And in this case, I think we can say with some degree of certainty that Eric should either be haunting Danish battlements with his ghostly steps, or stabbing his manservant behind an arras.

I’m not horribly picky about which one.

Something Rotten in the State of Denmark

As a birthday present, my favorite partner in crime treated me to Hamlet at the Gamm theatre in Pawtucket, RI.

I was excited to see the show because what’s a bardy birthday with some bard?  Also, I’m always on the lookout for companies who produce Shakespeare (preferably semi-regularly, which Gamm does).  Much of my audience Shakes-perience comes from years and years of being a patron of Shakespeare & Company, so it’s really good to broaden my portfolio and have a look at other companies, other styles, and other talents.

I try not to go into Shakespeare with any hopes whatsoever.  I really do try and enter with a clean mind, ready to enjoy the show and without some highfalutin’ notion of should and shouldn’t.  Obviously there’s an awareness of the textual and historical difficulties innate in any production, but I try not to let that hijack my experience of the performance.

Unfortunately, Gamm’s production was somewhat disappointing.

The first act was bland.  They tackled the problems innate in Hamlet with strength, but not any sense of creativity.  The staging was predictable, the performances on the whole nothing spectacular.  There were a few exceptions: Tony Estrella, Gamm’s current Artistic

Hamlet (center) greets Roz and Guil (Left and Right respectively)

Director and the title role of the show, speaks the text like he was born to it.  He was a little old for Hamlet, but that didn’t bother me overmuch once the play got rolling.  Steve Kidd’s Claudius may seem boring in the first act, but just give him some time to warm up.  Once he hits his soliloquy in the second act, he’ll prove that he’s no dumb king; he’s just trying to hold it together so hard that his movements are as constrained as a geisha’s.  Ben Gracia and Joe Short as Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are a breathe of fresh air, and I’ve never seen the “play this pipe” speech done with more clarity.  Tom Gleadow as the gravedigger should be knighted for bringing some joy to the stage, though his ghost leaves something to be desired (not due to his own performance, but rather due to a lack of directorial imagination – there was nothing done to distinguish the ghost as otherworldly or inhuman and thereby the scenes fell flat for me).

The entire player troop was also delightful – just hammy enough without completely stealing the show.

And the fight direction was absolutely stellar.  All of the violence onstage was well paced, well choreographed, and well rehearsed.  Mister Normand Beauregard, the Gamm’s resident fight director, has my personal stamp of approval.

With the good comes the bad, and unfortunately there was a great deal of bad.  Jeanine Kane’s Gertrude was cardboard, Marc Dante Mancini’s Horatio almost incomprehensible, and Gillian Williams packs too much of a punch to play Ophelia.  Due to the choice in aging Hamlet, Ophelia was also aged and, while Williams is certain to please in roles more suited to her strength, she didn’t make a believable waif.

Here’s the thing about Ophelia: Ophelia is a wisp of a girl stuck in a man’s world.  She’s not a woman, she’s not someone who knows how to function on her own, and every man in her life has used and abused her.  Her father, her brother, Hamlet himself… all of these men treat Ophelia like a pawn in their greater game.  Ophelia runs mad because these men are all taken away from her.  Without them, she simply cannot function in the high-pressure environment of the court.  If you have an Ophelia who is able to stand on her own, there’s no reason why she would run mad when her father dies and Hamlet is sent away.  She’d just pick herself up by the bootstraps and move on (and that, my friends, is the difference between Ophelia and Rosalind).  So Williams, while talented, really shouldn’t be playing this role.  And casting her robbed the play of credence.

Hamlet with Polonius

There’s been a trend lately of modernizing Hamlet, but the problem with doing that is such: there’s only so modern Hamlet can be.  Hamlet requires a world with aristocracy, a world where swords are still used (you cannot do anything else with that duel, it HAS to be a swordfight), and a world where women are afforded a societal position lower than men.  Most directors solve this by staging Hamlet in a World War II era, about the most modern Hamlet will go.  As such, this production’s choice to do just that wasn’t at all bold or new.  In fact, it’s becoming something quite hackneyed.

The production made one other bold choice which, again, wasn’t new or different… simply upsetting.

So Hamlet is a story about the foibles of leadership and how horrible power can be.  There is, however, hope in this: Horatio, the one who watches, the one who is there through everything, is able to carry on the story.  He tells the tale of the Danish court to Fortinbras after the Norwegians claim the Danish throne.  There is some assurance that these awful events, once come to pass, will never happen in the same way again.

That is, unless you disregard the textual clues, completely dump upon the greater meaning of Hamlet, and use the last moment onstage to shoot Horatio.

Okay, directors, listen up.  Rule number one about Hamlet: you don’t shoot Horatio.  Period.  Doing so completely alters the meaning of Shakespeare’s text, completely jars the audience into a hopeless slump, and otherwise privileges your “GREAT CONCEPT” over the bard’s work.  Yes, I understand that you’re trying to do something “new and innovative” with a text that is done to death in the popular culture, but shooting Horatio is not new nor is it innovative.  Oskar Eustis did it in Shakespeare in the Park’s 2008 Hamlet and I didn’t like it then either.  “Bid the soldiers shoot” is Fortinbras’ instruction to begin the gun salute funeral festivities, not license to impose your ending on a literary classic.

I could drone on about why this choice is wrong, but unless you’re looking for a dramaturge for your modern-dress production of Hamlet you’re probably not interested in reading it.  If you ARE looking for a dramaturge for your modern-dress production of Hamlet, shoot me an e-mail and I’m your girl.  If you’re planning a modern-dress production of Hamlet, for god’s sake find yourself a dramaturge so that you don’t make this mistake (…looking at the production credits, they did have a dramaturge for this production… I can’t imagine what she was thinking to allow this to happen.  Fie and shame upon her!).

What did Horatio ever do to you?

Hamlet’s run has been extended through December 18th.  For more information, head on over to their website.