Alright, Let’s Play

With Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations right around the corner (the known world tends to celebrate on April 23rd though we can only guess at the precise date; this year Shakespeare turns 450!), it’s natural to find a resurgence of Shakespeare-related ephemera on the internet.  This year, a friend of mine unearthed the following buzzfeed article which, in the proud tradition of internet take-downs (and, since I’m a professional paladin of the Bard), I’m going to take a moment to address.

The article’s author, Krystie Lee Yandoll, relates her traumatic childhood experiences with Shakespeare which lead to her adult disdain for the playwright.  Well, Krystie, let’s get real for a few minutes.

I can understand hating Hamlet in sixth grade and, in fact, I wonder at the wisdom of the teacher who presented it to you at that young tender age.  While I have every firm belief in the intellectual capacity of kids, with very few exceptions forced middle school readings of Shakespeare can be nothing but a horrible memory.  I apologize on behalf of Shakespeare professionals everywhere that this was your first experience with the Bard.

But your continued adherence to a blind hatred is nothing less than juvenile.  You go on to explain why reading Taming of the Shrew in high school didn’t appeal to you.  You say, “sure, it’s reflective of the time period it was written in — racial, gender, and sexual equality hadn’t yet reached 16th century England — but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to relish in what I interpret to be Shakespeare’s inherent sexism. If I don’t like reading modern stories and authors that perpetuate sexist ideals about gender, love, and marriage, why should I make an exception for Shakespeare?”  First of all, let’s get something straight; you cannot project your contemporary feminist ideals anachronistically onto a playwright whose worldview had no place for them.  You concede this, but continue on to violate your own conceit.  Stick to your preliminary guns on this one; your first instinct is the right one.

Second, who says that Taming of the Shrew perpetuates sexist ideals?  I would argue that that play portrays men as nothing less than cruel inhuman monsters.  Petruchio is the worst conception of a man when first we meet him and grows only slightly better by the end of the play.  Your determination to hate everything about this has blinded you to the facts: instead of looking at the spark notes, you should have read deeper.  Alright, perhaps you weren’t capable of this in high school, but you’re an adult now.  You can go underneath the text to project different theoretical lenses onto a piece and use your critical thinking skills to uncover readings that were previously not available to you.  But you didn’t do that; and by not doing that, you continue to spout a narrow point of view on the matter which isn’t flattering to your mental capacities.  Unpacking this information to satisfy your modern bias could lead to something more; don’t just give up and cry that this is horrible.

You continue on to claim: “The dominant narrative is, more often than not, determined by society’s elite. I’d rather not put an old, rich, white man from regal Britain and his antiquated ideologies about society on a pedestal.”

There’s a couple problems with this statement.  First and foremost: Shakespeare was neither old nor rich at the time he began his career.  Though he eventually became both (… “old” is still debatable since he died at the age of 52), you can’t project the future onto the past.

Secondly, you’re completely ignoring the history of Shakespeare in the United States (and, for that matter, England).  Shakespeare has always been a people’s playwright; from the groundlings who saw the shows during the seventeenth century, through to the groundlings who see them today.  Nineteenth century America was essentially a hotbed of popular culture Shakespeare.  He was a staple in vaudeville, hugely popular amongst minstrel acts, and stories run rampant about cowboys reciting Macbeth and forty niners walking hours to get to a play at night.  It wasn’t society’s elite that made Shakespeare into The Bard; it was common man (especially here in America).

Third, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything antiquated about Shakespeare “ideologies about society”; we still deal with tyrants (in government and our personal lives), we still deal with warring families (though perhaps not as bad as the Lear or Gloucester families), we still deal with social norms about marriage (when was the last time you saw a debate online about same-sex marriage?  And when was the last time you saw a progressively-cast version of Midsummer?)  Take a closer look and come back to argue when you have some hard evidence.  I’ll be happy to entertain your notions when you actually know what you’re talking about.

You reveal that “every time someone brings up Macbeth or The Tempest, I feel like I have a knot in my stomach because all I ever wanted in the world is to be taken seriously as a writer and lover of literature, and I never thought that could happen if I admitted to my disdain for Shakespeare.”  Frankly, it’s not your disdain for Shakespeare that makes me not take you seriously as a writer; it’s your disdain for the facts and critical thinking.  If this were a well-argued piece, I would have applauded you.  Instead, all I can see is a narrow-minded rant about why your scaring childhood experiences have prevented you from widening your focus to attempt to understand a cultural phenomenon.

You don’t have to like Shakespeare; but if you’re going to argue about him you do have to understand him.

Sweet Sweet Parsing

So have you guys seen the article about Parsing is Such Sweet Sorrow that’s been going around lately?

It was brought to my attention by a mentor of mine and I have a few colorful things to say about the project.

Let me start here: Yes!  Computers are useful!  And yes!  Digital humanities has some really exciting applications, even in the field of theatre!  You might think that this is a really simple thing to say/discover, but please let me take a moment to tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in on where I’ve heard theatre scholars of varying levels say either directly or indirectly “the digital humanities have no holding on my field.”  WRONG.  Computers are great at certain things that can make all of our lives easier.  They’re awesome at searching things, they’re fantastic at pattern recognition, they can find and share information across the world faster than you can say “speed of light” (…unless you’re on dial-up for some god forsaken reason in which case I’m so very sorry for you).

So well and truly: I think that Emma Pierson, the researcher who put together this project, is onto something really important: using computers with theatre!

That said, the findings aren’t anything new.  Heck, I could have told you exactly what she told you with her fancy charts and graphs without even boning up on my Romeo and Juliet (…though I will admit, my ability to quote Shakespeare from memory has been referenced in casual conversation as “inhuman” and “more than any healthy human being should really know”).

I took issue with a few metrics used in this study.  First and foremost, the length of the plays weren’t taken into consideration.  Placing Romeo and Juliet (a play of  24,535 words) on the same graph as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (16,511 words) without re-jiggering some appropriate metrics creates a skewed representation of the data (the average length of a play for Shakespeare, by the by, is 22,595 words which is the approximate length of Richard II… give or take a couple hundred words).  So while this data isn’t technically wrong, creating comparisons between these plays without figuring percentages of lines rather than number of lines creates a false sense of what’s actually going on here.  We can’t compare if there’s no real basis for comparison, and unfortunately Pierson has presented data that lives in its own world.  She’s just put those worlds side by side on the same axis and color-coded it to make it look cohesive.  It’s really not.

Pierson begins to unpack this data and postulates that the plays with the most connected lovers are also those with strong women.  I’m not certain we can really draw that conclusion from the limited sample size utilized in this study.  There are a few very notable strong women who are completely left out: Rosalind, Julia, Imogen, and Helen come to mind immediately.  What happens if we add the Princess of France and Rosaline from Love’s Labour’s Lost to this mix?  I think that will pretty well throw a monkey wrench in the entire operation considering the lovers in LLL hardly ever interact.  Or how about Isabella from Measure for Measure?  Can we even call her a “lover”?  She’s certainly a strong female Shakespearean lead… and she definitely ends up married at the end of her play… so what do we make of her?

I’m a huge fan of crafting visualizations like this to create conclusive and interactive data about things which were previously opinion based and, subsequently, inconclusive.  My large issue with the “Parsing” project is that it has so many holes.  Certainly it begins some new brainwaves, which is always good, but I’d love to see this information a bit more thoroughly teased out.  Honestly, I’d love to have the opportunity to get my hands dirty with it.  What could we find out from a study like this if we didn’t cherry-pick our plays?  I’m not sure, but I’d really like to find out.

At the end of the day, this is the important take-away: computers are only bound by our puny human brains.  Imagination is what will be the limiting variable in any study; even ones which utilize advanced technology to create neat little bar graphs.

Apple for the Teacher?

I am absolutely inundated in work.  All of it is good and fun, but oh man it’s a lot.

I started teaching my Shakespeare Appreciation class today for the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at Tufts.  OSHER is a continuing adult education program and they have an office at Tufts, so we graduate students frequently get pinged to pitch seminars at the program we might be interested in teaching.  Of course I saw this as an opportunity to talk about Will with a roomful of willing victims pupils, so I proposed a class.  It was snapped up immediately with great enthusiasm.  Once accepted, the course hit high

Shot I grabbed from inside the Cutler Majestic recently.... and then instagramed... but the filters make it so pretty!

Shot I grabbed from inside the Cutler Majestic recently…. and then instagramed… but the filters make it so pretty!

registration numbers which is even more exciting.  On the whole, I felt that the program really supported the possibility of a successful workshop.

I’m teaching As you Like it and King Lear over the course of eight weeks (with one odd little hiccup next week; since it’s Spring Break we won’t be holding seminar).  We started by discussing the first two acts of As You today.  I framed this with a discussion of Shakespeare’s early years as well as the pastoral genre and the differences we find between court and country in Shakespeare’s play.  I also showed a clip from the Branagh film.  While I don’t think it’s the best example out there of a well performed As you Like it (the concept is confused at best, and blenderized at worst…) I do think that it provides a great forum for discussion.

My class consists of fifteen students all well into their adult years with a plethora of backgrounds.  This is really exciting because it means that I have the opportunity to chat with all different levels of Shakespearience in one room.  I did a lot of lecture today, which I hope to remedy in the future, but by the time we were into the film they were ready to jump in with their own thoughts.

Teaching this workshop is a lot more relaxing than teaching a standard college course.  First of all, there’s no grading (which, by the way, takes up an enormous time devotion if you’re doing it right).  Secondly, everyone in that room really wants to be there and is dedicated to getting something out of the class.  This is wonderful because it gives me the opportunity to assume that we’re all interested in the topic rather than fulfilling our gen ed requirements.  There’s already the spark of curiosity in this room, which goes a long way towards generating good wholesome dialogue amongst ourselves.  Last, and certainly not least, these are adults.  They are older than I am.  They have vastly more world experience than I do.  They are definitely ready to learn from me, but I am so stoked about the possibilities of what they see in the material.  Their smorgasbord of experience, so different from mine, is really going to highlight this text from an entirely new perspective than the ones I’m used to.

So while my Mondays just got longer, I’m totally mind-numbingly ecstatic about it.  It’s going to be a lot to work through, but I think it will definitely be worthwhile; both for me and for my new students.

For the Children

As you may or may not recall, I’ve just come off a project at the Charlestown Working Theatre.  It has been my pleasure to fight direct their Advanced Youth Ensemble’s production of Macbeth.  The show opens on Saturday the first and runs weekends through the ninth (for more information, check out the CWT website).  This production has given me the opportunity to think about a great many things (not the least of which being “What’s the best way to kill a child, but not the infant he’s carrying, onstage?”; “How badass are the Banquos?”; and “If I were the King of Scotland, what would my signature broadsword move be?”).  One of the more poignant issues came up the other day in rehearsal, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss it.

This show is a production with teens.  The cast is (mostly) aged 13-18.  CWT plays host to several youth programs for children of varying ages and it’s truly a family place.  As a result, the director mentioned to me that she has been asked by parents if this show is appropriate for their younger children.

Alright, look.  Macbeth is a violent show that deals with adult themes.  Depending on the production company and the director’s imagination, sometimes the show is more violent than other times.  This version of Macbeth happens to be “bloodless” (by this I mean that, while murders are staged, we are not using blood or gore effects) and the violence is relatively straightforward (the murders are “clean” without being psychotic or sociopathic; the murderers take no apparent relish in their task but rather perform it as a duty).  Honestly, I think that this Macbeth is extremely appropriate for children of a certain age.

 

Me working with the cast.  Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Me working with the Macbeth cast (specifically Macbeth and Young Siward). Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Because bad things do happen in the world; and sometimes they happen to good people.  There isn’t a single news channel that wouldn’t show coverage similar to what we’re producing onstage.  This world is not always a safe place to be, and coming to terms with that is a part of growing up.

We go to the theatre to be transformed.  The old adage that philosophers unto ancient times have touted is that good theatre is meant to educate and entertain.  What better way to teach your children about violence than to expose them to violent acts in a safe space, where no one will really get hurt, and where the consequences are reversible?  Will young children feel disturbed by what they see in Macbeth?  I hope so.  If you can witness these kind of deeds without feeling some kind of stirring in your gut, then I don’t think you’re fit for humanity.  But what a teaching moment for them; what a place to learn is a theatre.

Besides which, there’s nothing we are showing that they can’t see in to even greater extreme on television, in movies, or in video games.  Did you know that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985?  I’ve seen enough faceless murder victims on the big screen to know that killing isn’t a thing Hollywood takes seriously.  Blood, gore, assault… these are issues which we should be discussing with our children.  And, luckily, they are issues which Shakespeare takes seriously.  I think that Macbeth is a learning opportunity.  It’s an outlet for conversation about some BIG TOUGH issues which are and are not pieces of our daily lives.  Because, let’s face it, even though we are confronted with depictions of violence on an almost-daily basis, how often do we talk about it?

So I encourage you to take the opportunity that theatre has presented.  Teach your children about violence in a meaningful way in hopes that they can come to respect it and, in turn, realize how impactful it can be.  And, hey, maybe come see Macbeth.  Just to find out what that signature move I invented might be.

Back Into the Fray

First of all: hi!  I’m back!  My much-needed break was much-needed, but being back is a vital portion of keeping myself afloat with my studies.  While I was away, I came across several things that I think would make great posts (don’t worry, those ideas are all safely tucked away under my cap), but none that made me more angry than this blog post I stumbled across while mucking about on facebook.

Paul Mullin is a Seattle-based self-professed “recovering playwright”.  And apparently in 2011 he had some things to say about my man Will.  Let’s start here: go read Mullin’s post; otherwise what I’m about to say is not going to make any sense.

Mullin writes with all the bitterness of a contemporary playwright whose works have been sidelined for more “classical” material.  One of the many things I took issue with in this blog is the tacit assumption that Shakespeare is, in Mullin’s words, a “cash cow” that theatres return to in order to support their other repertory.  This is, at least in this country, absolutely not the case.  Except for very rare circumstances (most of those being Shakespeare-specific companies), Shakespeare is not a moneymaker.  If you want to look at cash cows, cast your gaze to the American musical.  I guarantee you that the odd foray into Grease or Rent will gross a theatre more dollars than the pet-project Hamlet.

A pretty shot of the lobby at Trinity Rep.  Because I've got nothing else to put here, and I love this picture I managed to get.

A pretty shot of the lobby at Trinity Rep. Because I’ve got nothing else to put here, and I love this picture I managed to get.

Next; let’s tackle Mullin’s primary thesis: “Shakespeare would hate us”.  In Mullin’s world, Shakespeare comes via time machine (DeLorean, TARDIS, or otherwise) to the twenty-first century, stays for a while, and has a few things to say about the theatre scene here.  All of them are bad.  Shakespeare, contends Mullin, would hate everything about being a working American playwright and many things about the theatre scene in general.

The bottom line is this: Shakespeare would have no sense of perspective about the twenty-first century American Theatre scene, even if he could somehow magically be transported here to stay for a while.  There is nothing about any of the things that Mullin takes issue with via his Shakespeare avatar that Shakespeare could have even hoped to fathom as making sense.  Saying that Shakespeare would hate us is like saying that Jane Austen was a feminist – there is no cultural context for these people from their own times to have the modern interpretations of opinion which we impress upon them from our 20/20 historical hindsight.  The world, after all, has changed a lot in the past four hundred years.

These kinds of arguments (and I see my fair share of them) recursively glamourize the same unchanging past that they strive to break free from.  By romanticizing the Bardic Avatar, we create a Shakespeare who judges from his untouched perch at the heart of historical perfection.  By putting the ultimate judgment about our theatre today in the hands of a long-dead playwright, we give that playwright the authority over our theatre.  In this way, we privilege Shakespeare’s stage as some kind of perfection which we have strayed away from.  This, you will note, is exactly what Mullin is explicitly attempting to fight as the first half of his post is dedicated to establishing a theatre outside of Shakespeare.  In struggling to remove the agency from Shakespeare’s hands, Mullin strays right back to them.

Another issue I have with this article is a purely historical one.  Mullin’s facts are, for the most part, blatantly wrong.  His assumptions are formed around some few elementary notions about the Elizabethan theatre which don’t hold up to careful scrutiny: that all Elizabethan playwrights were actors (not the case; Thomas Kyd and John Lyly just to name a few off the cuff who put pen to page but never acted professionally), that Shakespeare spoke as eloquently as he wrote (where can we even begin to prove this?  Anecdotal evidence: does everyone you know speak exactly like they write?), that “new” plays were and ought to be privileged over “old” plays in Elizabeth’s London (… because the Elizabethans surely didn’t worship old material.. you know… like any of the stuff they ripped plots from on a regular basis).

What really gets me going is when people try to put words in Will’s mouth.  Mullin’s most

Adventuring in Boston

Adventuring in Boston

blatant instance of this occurs when he claims: “Shakespeare may have envied his social superiors, but he also knew at his core he was better than them”…. Uh…. What?  I can’t even fathom where the seed of this information is coming from.  How is it even possible to ascertain this from the few facts we have about Shakespeare’s life, none of which come from Shakespeare himself?  Making any statement about how Shakespeare “felt” about anything is far-fetched at best, but this is flat out fantastical thinking worthy of a set of wings and a magic wand.

So can we stop dredging him up to put words in his mouth?  Can we talk about him and not for him?  Meaningful conversation can only be placed upon a firm foundation of fact.  Lacking that, all we have is opinion.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for someone to unearth Shakespeare’s diary from the bindings of some age-old book; but until then let’s not speak for him.  It’ll only anger his already-restless spirit and make him devour us all-the-quicker when he takes over the world as a super zombie (…hey, if you can fantasize about Shakespeare’s afterlife, then so can I).

Rejuvenated

I have just returned from Shakespeare Camp and OH MAN am I excited.

In this case, “Shakespeare Camp” is the 2013 Blackfriars Conference.  Held every other year, the conference is hosted by the American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.  On odd numbered years, this sleepy little town (charming to us city-folk) plays host to the hoard of Shakespeareans who descend en masse to give papers, hear keynotes, drink copiously, and network network network.

This year, I gave a paper on my work surrounding the African Grove Theatre’s production

A particularly dramatic moment of my presentation  captured by the wonderful Amy Wratchford of the ASC

A particularly dramatic moment of my presentation
captured by the wonderful Amy Wratchford of the ASC

of Richard III.  It was received extremely well and I spent the rest of the conference in scholar heaven with loads of encouragement, plenty of questions, and oodles of intellectual fodder.  Sometimes, it really takes another eye to help take your work to the next level.  In this case, I had a couple hundred eyes and I’m so excited by all the questions and feedback that I got.

This was a very long conference.  I didn’t make it down until Wednesday afternoon, but it technically begins on Tuesday evening and stretches until Sunday.  Essentially, that’s a week’s worth of work that we all miss to come and play with each other at the Blackfriars.  By the end of the conference, you’re tired (sessions begin at 8AM and often don’t end until midnight, and that’s not even counting post-panel drinks and networking at the hotel bar which is amongst the most important part of what we do at conferences), you’re stressed out by the amount of work that’s lurking on your desk and has accumulated since you’ve left, but you’re invigorated.

For me, the beauty of a good conference is the amount of inspiration it provides.  I always know that a conference was worthwhile if I come home really ready to attack my work so that I can meet newfound goals provided by the conferencing atmosphere.  Especially given the amount of mental drain that I’ve experienced over the past several months due to the examination process, this was a much-needed rejuvenation.

Another very neat aspect of these things is that since everyone goes to them you get to meet people from fellow graduate students all the way to superstar academics.  On Friday morning I sat in a keynote given by Russ McDonald.  It was interesting and he was absolutely charming, but here was the best part:

Another presentation shot; this one courtesy of Eric Johnson of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Another presentation shot; this one courtesy of Eric Johnson of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Six years ago, in my undergrad, I spent a summer researching in Stratford upon Avon.  It was one of the first times that I had a taste of what “real” research is like, and certainly was the first time I had been given the opportunity to do archival work.  It was the first time that I really realized this could be a life choice, that I could possibly spend the rest of my life doing this.  I’d say that, while it wasn’t my first date with Will, it was definitely the moment when things got serious.

As preparation for that trip, I had to read several introductory articles and books (including things by McDonald… Russ, not Old).  I will be honest and say that it’s not something I think about every day, or even every week, but as I sat in that keynote address, I suddenly remembered the feeling of reading that work.  The over-arching wonder that I was going to be visiting (and living in) Stratford; that I would walk those streets; that I would see those shows in that place.  When I remembered that, everything just clicked into place and I had a feeling of vertigo.  How far had I come in six years; how much had I experienced.  It all flew past me like some sappy eighties montage culminating with a thunking landing on that seat in the Blackfriars playhouse.

So here’s to the last six years; and the next six years; and all the intervals in between.

A shot of the last panel of the conference starring the infamous ASC bear which chases you offstage if you go over your allotted time

A shot of the last panel of the conference starring the infamous ASC bear which chases you offstage if you go over your allotted time

Let’s see how productive I can be in the interim between Blackfriars so that next time (October 2015) I can re-encounter old acquaintances with new vigor, new stories, and new bylines on my CV.

So now: back to your regularly scheduled programing.

And Knowing is Half the Battle

Since I seem to be writing nothing but theatre reviews lately (…mostly because I’m seeing SO MUCH THEATRE!), I figure it may be time for a reprieve from the “mundane” (or at least routine) around here.

Here is an unexclusive, incomplete list of things that I learned this week.

Thing one: Cyrano De Bergerac is a tragedy… and actually really sad.  This would be fine except I saved it to read for when I needed a pick-me-up… suffice to say it’s been a rough week for many reasons (only one of which being the sheer amount of maudlin tragedy I’ve had to choke down this week).

Thing two: Peanut butter, when put in a saucepan, burns really quickly.  If you want to melt it to… say… pour over your ice cream, you need to do it low and slow.

Thing three: Early Russian theatre sometimes consisted of “serf theatre”.

Shot of my desk... and my book fort.  Yup.  It's a book fort.

Shot of my desk… and my book fort. Yup. It’s a book fort.

The Russian feudal system persevered long after it was abolished in other countries (my mostly uninformed hypothesis about this entails factors such as geographic distance from anywhere that may have been interested in creating a mercantile class, a sure-fire way to abolish feudalism, and the many puns one can create using the word “serf”).  Russian landowners, for lack of better things to do, sometimes trained their serfs and created theatre companies with them to perform for said landowners’ amusement.  This, for some reason, is both fascinating and wonderful to me.  Probably because I’ve never been a Russian peasant.

Thing four: When held in contrast with other nineteenth century pieces and scholarship about said nineteenth century pieces, melodrama actually makes for surprisingly engaging reading.  Go go Pixerécourt.

Thing five: I think if Victor Hugo had actually written the playscript to Les Miserables rather than just the novel that it was based on, it would have been markedly more wonderful, decidedly more Spanish, and never would have run on Broadway for a record 6,680 performances.  See for evidence: Hernani.

Thing six: If you hope hard enough, despite all natural barriers to the contrary, you can make it be autumn in New England even in July.

Thing seven: You could very feasibly murder people utilizing nineteenth century stage technologies and hide their bodies in places that would never be found, even within the theatre itself.  Unfortunately, once I had this thought, actually enacting such things was the only notion on my mind as I flipped through my well-illustrated guide to the nineteenth century French stage.  As such, I’m earmarking this idea for a potential future novel; sounds like a great historical detective case to me.

This is a REALLY cute kitten taking a nap (about palm-sized for the record).  He's not mine, but I like him better that way. I don't have to clean his poop.

This is a REALLY cute kitten taking a nap (about palm-sized for the record). He’s not mine, but I like him better that way. I don’t have to clean his poop.

Thing eight:  I wasn’t just whistling Dixie when I told people that German would be a useful language to have in my back pocket in the field of theatre history.  Just this week I’ve encountered several books and one play (the play, unfairly enough, was Russian in its original language) which entail lengthy/important passages in both French and German that the scholar/translator couldn’t be bothered to render into English.  Academic superpowers activate!

Thing nine: For this reason, I will really be screwed when I enter into the land of Japanese theatre.

Thing ten:  I’m really grateful to have friends who will push me to tell them about what I read on any given day.  Also friends who will go with me to the theatre.  Also friends who will pester me via text message until I leave my cave and socialize in the real world.  Also friends who will let me call and cry/whine/complain about neoclassicism and why it’s an abomination against art… even if they don’t really understand what neoclassicism is.  Also friends who speak Shakespeare to me as a means of comfort.  Thank you, friends!

Thing eleven:  Restoration comedies are WAY funnier performed than on the page.

Thing twelve: I should probably consider taking a break sometime soon lest I devolve into some sort of Gollum creature mindlessly repeating pertinent names, dates, and phrases that would only make sense in the context of theatre history.

The Love Boat Goes to Verona

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending opening night of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona on Boston common.

After last year’s middling Coriolanus, I didn’t have high hopes for this (…that may also be the comps brain talking since I’m not sure I could work up the energy to have high hopes about anything right now).  Especially after reading that the concept was “rat pack”.  I just wasn’t sure things would work out; Two Gents is a notoriously difficult play to make read to a modern audience, Shakespeare on the Common is notoriously not the sum of its parts for whatever reason, and Boston weather patterns make outdoor evening theatre a gamble at best.

But somehow, despite all this, the cosmos aligned and it was truly a production worth seeing!

Jenna Augen’s Julia was absolutely adorable (even in the face of a tragic act-one kerfluffle in which Mimi Bilinski, her Lucetta, failed to come onstage at her cue and left poor Augen to live out the actor’s nightmare: scrambling to cover for a co-star while under the pressure of rhymed iambic pentameter).  She had some sauce and spice and a decidedly different take on the Act V reversal (which I won’t ruin for you since I want to encourage you to go see the show).

our blanket: a still-life.

our blanket: a still-life.

Rimo Airaldi’s Speed and Larry Coen’s Launce were a comic duo that actually made sense.  They played the jokes to a T and, despite any misgivings I had about an older more august Speed, I was quickly charmed into their clutches.

Rick Park’s Duke of Milan is the best I’ve ever seen.  His portrayal of an incensed father in III.i (the scene during which Valentine is outcast) was real enough that I truly believed he would kill Valentine (Andrew Burnap) if given half the chance.  And this, my friends, caused dramaturgical magic.  Because the threat of death was so real, Burnap was able to launch into the most transcendent rendition of the “what light is light” speech that I have ever heard.  I, the notorious curmudgeon, was moved to tears and could only be revivified by the liberal application of the annual CSC signature Ben and Jerry’s sundae (this year’s creation: the Crabbe Bag…. Eat one.  You won’t regret it.).

In terms of the concept, it worked a lot better than I expected it to.  The outlaws in the woods became Wild West clowns/menaces and Act V devolved into a road-runner style farcical chase complete with door-swinging and dance-hiding.  Because of this, the general tone of disingenuousness led to a ready acceptance of the notoriously hard to stage Act V reversal.  Well done, CSC.  Well done.

I have only two complaints.  The first is that there was no fight director or violence coordinator billed in the program while I certainly saw some onstage violence.  If you need to understand the importance of this, let me guide you self-promotionally to the following youtube interview with some people who know what they are talking about in this regard.

The second is that in order to serve the concept, the director chose to include a liberal amount of extra-textual music numbers.  Julia burst out with “fever”, Launce sang “ain’t that a kick in the head?”, etc.  These music numbers, though well executed, slowed the pace of the first act to a crawl.  It would have served just as well to include half the number of musical interludes and I think it would have kept the audience more engaged not to be bursting into non-Shakespeare song every ten to fifteen minutes.

As I said, on the whole this was a very good rendition of a hard-to-perform piece.  If nothing else, it’s a free evening of entertainment, the common is beautiful this time of year, and you can enjoy your own picnic libations with some good company while waiting for curtain.

Though if you, like me, get the sudden urge to fox trot when any of the rat pack tunes are played by a live jazz band, be prepared to bring some dancing shoes.

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!

Happy Birthday, Will!

Tuesday was Shakespeare’s “birthday”.

I put “birthday” in quotation marks because, much like most things Shakespeare, we don’t know precisely when the man was born.  Early modern birthing and burial practices being what they were, we can hazard a guess.  Since April 23 is as good a day as any, it pleases us to tell ourselves that this is the day upon which our Will was born and, as such, we should celebrate him on that day.

To celebrate, I was invited to speak on a panel by New Hampshire’s Seven Stages Shakespeare company.  The panel was held in the most adorable little bookshop in Portsmouth (Riverrun books) and consisted of a wide array of experts: Hope Jordan, the first official slam poet master in New Hampshire; John-Michael Albert, Portsmouth’s outgoing poet laureate; myself; and a much more senior Shakespeare scholar, Dr. David Richman.  Our conversation was focused on The Phoenix and the Turtle, the role of poetry throughout time and poetry in general, but what it really made me do was remember my roots as a Shakespearean.

I’m certain that by now anyone who follows this has 100% assurance of my devotion to Shakespeare as a lifestyle.  This life choice is a debt that I owe to my amazingly brilliant Grandmother who decided that no grandchild of hers would be bad-mouthing the bard and made it her business to forcibly subject me to well-performed pieces until I learned to love them.  Since then, I’ve used her method several times on others whom I’ve wanted to instill a similar Shakes-beat into and I’ve actually found that this is the best way to convert the unfaithful.  There is, without a doubt, something about Shakespeare that touches us as human beings and, while reading it can be dull and unfulfilling, seeing it performed by anyone who has an ounce of sense and talent is something the human heart can’t forget.  We’re beings of music and stardust, metaphor and poetry.  We’re beings of emotion: love and anger, jealousy and hate, yearning and hope.  It’s all in there; every last bit.  Anything you could want or hope to feel as a human is something you will find in the canon, it’s simply a question of knowing where to look.

It would be strange of me to try and explain how Shakespeare has affected my life since I live every moment with the man.  Would I have a life without Shakespeare?  Well, sure, but it would be a completely different life.  He’s managed to creep inside my soul and speak from the darkest places there.  But here’s the thing: the more I learn about Will, the more I realize this fascination isn’t one I feel alone.  Throughout history many great men and women have felt the same; I’m in the company of Goethe, Jonson, Müller.  I’m in conversations with John Quincy Adams, Isaac Asimov, and Neil Gaiman.  I’m haunted by Voltaire, Sarah Bernhardt, and John Keats.  Shakespeare studies is inclusive; it touches just about every other major course of literary study to some extent, and it’s written all over the history of the theatre.  Because of Shakespeare, I have something to talk about with most people in my extended field (both the arts and humanities).

Shakespeare’s the great communicator and the great equalizer.  When I need to say something but can’t quite find the right words, I often turn to him for help.  When I am feeling something overwhelming, I often remember how his characters dealt with similar feelings (…though generally refrain from enacting their often bloody and complicated solutions; I have enough trouble in my life without running mad, baking people into pies, or crafting over-engineered schemes to manipulate the people around me and then wondering why they don’t work/how they could have possibly worked so well).  Shakespeare’s there at my best and my worst and, these days, is often the catalyst for such moments.  I rely on him to be a constant source of inspiration; a heartbeat to my work.  He’s with me at every conference and he’s coached me through the end of every semester.  When I feel like giving up, he alternates glowering at me and encouraging me.  He keeps me motivated and excited.  He calls me back when I’ve wandered too far astray, and he tells me to play the field when I’m being too clingy.

Shakespeare, right now, is my life.  And I am so grateful to have the opportunities which allow this.

Here’s a few snippets of the panel.  Watch, enjoy, and bid a big happy birthday to my man Will.  Also, if you were interested in how some other internet denizens have chosen to celebrate Shakespeare-day, you should check out the e-card that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust put together with folks around the world (myself included) available here.