March 5, 2014 § Leave a Comment
Summer always means lots of Shakespeare, but with the 450th birthday approaching in just a few weeks, the classical season is shaping up a bit early this year. Below are some of the highlights of the coming season. Shakespearean comedies are heavily represented, as would be expected in a celebratory year, but surprisingly no histories this year anywhere!
The productions about which I am personally most excited appear in bold.
The Taming of the Shrew
College of Marin Drama
835 College Ave
Measure for Measure
San Francisco State University
City College of San Francisco
Diego Rivera Theatre
50 Phelan Avenue
Medea by Euripides
African-American Shakespeare Company
Buriel Clay Theater
762 Fulton Street
March 14 – April 13
Arms and the Man by Bernard Shaw
Ross Valley Players
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
The Bacchae by Euripides
UC Berkeley Theater
Zellerbach Room 7
Romeo and Juliet
Ninjaz of Drama
Much Ado About Nothing
African-American Shakespeare Company
Buriel Clay Theater
762 Fulton Street
May 22 – June 22
May 23 – June 15
As You Like It
Novato Theater Company
5420 Nave Dr.
The Taming of the Shrew
Othello (in rep)
Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company
Willow Street Park
June 19 – July 6
Much Ado About Nothing
Livermore Shakespeare Festival
June 25 – July 20
Comedy of Errors
June 28 – Sept. 21
The Taming of the Shrew
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Amador Valley Community Park (6/28-7/13)
Memorial Park (7/19-8/3)
Sequoia High School (8/9-24)
The Presidio (8/30-9/21)
July 1 – August 10
As You Like It
Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen
July 9 – August 8
July 11 – August 10
As You Like It
Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
July 13 – August 10
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen
July 17 – August 11
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Vallejo Shakespeare in the Park
Hanna Park, Vallejo (7/27-28)
John Muir Amphitheatre, Martinez (8/3-4)
Peralta Hacienda Historic Park (8/10-11)
July 30 – August 24
Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw
August 15 – September 1
As You Like It
Shakespeare Napa Valley
Veterans Memorial Park
August 23 – Sept. 14
Old Mill Park Amphitheatre
August 23 – Sept. 27
An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde
Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
August 26 – Sept 28
Romeo and Juliet
Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
November 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Annotated List of Complete Shakespeare Editions
Kurt Daw, November 2013
To many novices, the biggest shock about the plays of Shakespeare is discovering how different one edition can be from another. “Why don’t they just print what he wrote?” readers ask in despair. The very good reason is that no one is sure exactly what that was. There are NO definitive scripts. We have no manuscript versions, and the oldest printed editions contain obvious mistakes, problems and omissions. Where more than one Renaissance edition of a play exists (and some exist in two, three and even four substantive versions) different words, different speeches and sometimes completely different scenes exist. The variances can be so great in some cases, like the two substantially different versions of King Lear, that recent editors have treated them as separate plays.
Renowned editor and scholar Stephen Orgel has argued that plays in the early modern era were never absolutely fixed, but were considered collaborations between playwrights, theatre companies, and printers. Our modern idea of a definitive text did not exist. Stephen Greenblatt summarized this situation as unresolvable in his famous essay “The Dream of the Master Text.”
An Edition is a Version
All editions are versions, guided by different editorial aims about what they should accomplish.
With the advent of digital technologies, facsimiles (something like a photocopy) of the earliest print editions are easily and widely available online. These require some bibliographic expertise to interpret, however, because different spelling, typesetting, and printing conventions of the time make them shockingly difficult to read and use.
A page from the First Folio
Although purists argue that the plays are fundamentally changed by doing so, much of the difficulty of using facsimiles is alleviated with texts that use modern conventions for spelling, punctuation and printing. Even once those are in place, however, the issues are just beginning. If two people sit side-by-side with two different editions, there is no guarantee that the words will be the same, that the content of the scene will be identical or even that the characters in a scene will have the same name. ALL editors have to make judgments about which options to include and which to exclude from their edition. They have to decide what mistakes were made in the Renaissance printings and how best to repair them.
They also have to make educated guesses about what is important and useful to the users of their edition in order to understand and appreciate it. Because of that most editions also come with supplementary materials. These constitute notes about the meaning of words, phrases and references in the plays. They may (but do not always) include explanations about what textual variants were available and how the editor determined which ones to use. They may also include such things as biographic materials about Shakespeare, stage histories of the play, and essays about modern interpretations.
When you buy a Shakespeare play or complete works, because Shakespeare is not getting any royalties, what you are paying for is the editorial expertise. (The truth is that you mostly get what you pay for.) The range of choices can be bewildering. Below is my subjectively annotated list of the major editions of the Complete Works currently available, along with their strengths and weaknesses. (I will discuss major play series which publish titles in individual editions in a subsequent separate post.)
Dozens of different editions of Shakespeare’s plays exist, but the overwhelming odds are that the one(s) you already own are reprints of the 1864 Globe edition, edited by William G. Clark, and William A. Wright, with John Glover. If your edition does not clearly say who edited it, then it is almost certainly the Globe edition. There are a lot of reasons that this may be so: When it was published as a single-volume, popular version of the weighty Cambridge edition (stripped of its notes and apparatus), it was the best scholarship available. It remained the standard edition for over a century and almost all criticism was keyed to its line numbers. It was the first true academic edition backed by the reputation of a great university. But all of that pales in comparison to the simple reason it continues to dominate the market today: It is long out of copyright and its text can be reproduced inexpensively. In fact, with no printing costs attached, it is available all over the internet for free.
In truth, if all you want to do is give a play a quick read, it is probably good enough, which is why it still flourishes. Nonetheless, it has some weaknesses that make it problematic. The big one is that it has no notes or explanations. It is just a playscript. As many a student trying to save a few dollars has discovered, that renders it almost useless for an initial encounter with Shakespeare. It also makes almost all the editorial changes invisible. The editors were prone to extensive, but unexplained, emendation. They repaired word choices they found unclear, poetic rhythms they assumed were incorrect, and material they found indecorous, but in a way that completely escapes the average reader. For those who need a greater degree of transparency about editorial intervention, which includes all actors along with most serious students, this will not do.
The good news is, because of its electronic availability for free, there is no reason ever to purchase a copy. It is easily consulted online if you want to know what this edition says.
One of the innumerable forms in which the Globe edition is available.
The Riverside is a large, single volume edition of the complete plays that became a favorite of English departments as soon as it was originally issued in 1973. A substantial reworking resulted in a second edition in the late ’90s. In editions of Complete Works, the supplemental materials are meant to apply to the entire canon, so they are informative about social context but not particularly tied to any specific play. The major of notes are definitional glosses on the text. Textual variants are recorded at the end of the play. There is not much commentary on the play, so the text largely stands on its own. Throughout the punctuation is considerably lightened from what you find in other editions.
Once the industry standard for a complete works, it is now largely superseded by newer editions below. (Because of that, however, you can sometimes find quite inexpensive used editions.)
University of Chicago professor David Bevington is something of a legend in the field of Shakespeare studies. He is the only modern editor to have single-handedly edited the entire canon for a major publisher. Surprisingly, it is much less ideocentric than comparable editions where multiple editors are involved. The supplementary materials are again meant to apply to the entire cannon, rather than being specific to any particular play, but are excellent. In a short, but very useful, essay Bevington discusses Shakespeare’s use of language in greater depth, and with greater insight, than any other editor. The latest edition’s greatest strength is another essay that sorts criticism from a vast range of perspectives into recognizable categories and approaches.
While in many ways quite conservative editorially, Bevington introduces some very helpful devices. Line numbers appear for all lines that have notes attached rather than every ten lines in other editions. The amount of time that saves counting up and down is alone enough to endear him to students! Bevington has practical theatrical experience but that does not color the notes attached to specific plays, which are more literary in nature. The dense introductory essays to the plays, however, discuss broad interpretive trends from a very theatrical perspective. (The edited text is also available in individual editions, which do have the notes and introduction but do not have the rich introductory materials of the Complete Works.)
The Oxford set off a revolution in Shakespeare editorial practice by prioritizing the “revisions” included in the Folio over the quartos as control texts. Previous practice had been to get as close to Shakespeare’s original manuscript as possible, generally emphasizing the earliest “reliable” quarto text. It has long been recognized that the Folio was heavily influenced by promptbooks from the theatre, so major changes introduced in it were thought of as theatrical corruptions to Shakespeare’s work. Wells and Taylor argued that Shakespeare was a working member of the acting company, however, and if the Folio records revisions made to the script, Shakespeare surely approved them. He probably actually wrote them.
Their new perspective resulted in a vastly different edition (or rather, two editions, since it is published in both modern and old spelling versions) than anything that had preceded it. The Oxford edition has as much commentary, and as many notes, as the Riverside or Bevington. Oddly, however, the publisher printed the complete works in a compact volume and then moved all the supporting materials to a companion volume. You have to buy two books if want access the scholarship, some of which is very theatrically oriented and might be really helpful to actors if it was better known.
(Caution: Individual plays are published separately as the Oxford Shakespeare, but these are separate versions with different editors.)
Oxford‘s mystifying decision to separate notes and commentary from text created an opening which Norton, the American publisher best known for collegiate anthologies, rapidly exploited. They licensed the Oxford‘s play texts and used them for the basis of their edition, which does come complete with extensive notes and commentary – but not the Oxford notes. Instead they brought in a new editorial team led by Stephen Greenblatt to supply entirely new supplementary materials. (They also made some minor adjustments to the most eccentric editorial decisions, especially the renaming of Falstaff, which they reversed.) The Norton is the most widely adopted of all current Complete Works editions. It has extensive textual glosses – and light contextual notes – available right next to the text. It restores some diacritical marks, mostly just for sounded past tense endings, which does give actors occasional scansion help. All notes, however, seem more theatrical than competitive editions.
Actors either love or hate this edition. It is a very compact version, made possible by a paucity of introductory materials, short pithy notes and a lot of small type. To many those are bugs, but some actors think they are features because (like the Oxford compact edition) it is light enough to carry into rehearsals. The layout is elegant and uncluttered. Glosses are relegated to the bottom of the page. The general editors are Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller. Co-editor Stephen Orgel is one of the most erudite scholars working today, but because of the concise format, little of that insight is captured in this edition. You have to read his essays published elsewhere to see and understand his skill.
The most recent of the complete editions is a version by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen for MacMillan UK and marketed as the Royal Shakespeare Company edition. Generally recognizing the revolution caused by the Oxford, but asserting Wells and Taylor did not go far enough, the RSC editors flatly state that what they have produced is an edited version of the Folio. Unlike all the previous work done to try to get to “the plays as they came from Shakespeare’s hand” or in Oxford’s case, “the plays as they were first performed” the RSC editors built their edition around a material, rather than platonic, book. Although that may lead in practice to many of the same choices as are contained in the Oxford, the logic is different getting there. The notes, therefore, are a reversion to a more bibliographic set of concerns. Interestingly, however, because of the association with the RSC, the introductory materials are much more theatrical. There is also some very interesting material in brief introductions to the plays including line counts, and percentage of the play those occupy, for the major characters and some other revealing statistics. In the US it is much more expensive that comparable editions, but it is a notable addition to the field.
By far, the most scholarly and admired Shakespeare series is the Arden, of which the single-title editions are indispensable for their superb introductions, notes, and glosses. Arden gathers their edited playtexts into a single large edition, but it is completely shorn of all the scholarship and contextual materials that make the series famous. It is the least useful of all Complete Works. (Although the date of the second edition is recent, the collected contents generally date from the ’80s and ’90s.)
Decision: I give a slight edge to the Norton, for its excellent supplementary materials and actor-friendly notes. A close second would be the Bevington, with supplementary materials that are superior to the Norton’s but more literarily oriented notes, which do not help the actor enough.
Disclaimer: Titles of editions, above, are linked to Amazon.com, to which I have an affiliation. This means if you decide to make a purchase from them, I will get a sales commission. But that doesn’t mean my opinion is for sale. Every affiliate link on my blog is to products that I’ve personally used and found useful. Of course, all these volumes are available from numerous other sources as well.
November 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Every season, Theatre Communications Group (TCG) – the organization of America’s not-for-profit theatres – puts out a list of the 10 most produced plays by its nearly 500 members. (Because they recognize ties, it is often more like the Top 15…) Although it covers only a segment of the American Theatre scene, (because it does not include for-profit, academic, or amateur theatres) its annual list is a quick way to get the pulse of what plays and playwrights are currently hot. That is a very useful list for performers thinking about where to put their time and energy familiarizing themselves with scripts, with names to watch, and with sources for audition material.
Recently, TCG put out their list for the season now underway, topped by David Ives’ Venus in Fur which has an impressive 22 productions scheduled across the nation this year. The breadth of representation drops off rather quickly, however. Five titles tied for tenth place, a spot that just seven productions would earn.
For the last season for which complete records are available (2012-13), a mere 17 productions was enough to earn the top spot for David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, with Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park a close second with 15 productions.
What is not immediately obvious, however, is that TCG makes two exclusions to their counts: They do not include holiday shows, like the ubiquitous Christmas Carol and the current small budget alternative, The Santaland Diaries, both of which would have shot to the top of the list.
More surprisingly, they do not list plays by Shakespeare. Yet every year Shakespeare plays would rank quite high on the list if they did. In the 2012 season, according to a title search using TCG’s data, 11 productions of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream each would have placed them in a tie for sixth place with John Logan’s Red. With 10 productions, Romeo and Juliet would be in a tie for seventh place. 8 productions each of Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, and Henry V would have placed all of these on the top ten list, with Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest both finishing only one place out of the running.
Although it is not immediately apparent, Shakespeare had eight plays on the “top eleven” list last year, while no other playwright appears even twice. All told, according to a quick search of the TCG website, Shakespeare received a total of 127 productions last year. The year before, he received 153. The year before that 148.
My purpose is not to quarrel with TCG’s exclusions. They are open about their methodology, and their support of new American work.
When students ask me, however, about where to spend their time and energy, I am always quick to remind them the most produced playwright in America – who, by the way, has occupied this position for every single year of the last hundred years – is William Shakespeare.
October 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment
During the early part of the 17th Century, while Shakespeare and his contemporaries were active in London, an equally vital theatrical period, the Siglo del Oro, filled the stages of Spain. Despite the sweep and power of the plays, they are criminally neglected in the contemporary repertoire. It is difficult to find an opportunity to see one.
If you are anywhere near the San Francisco area don’t miss the chance, therefore, to see the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts program’s production of Sueño, translated and adapted by José Rivera from the great Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream.) You will quickly see what all the fuss is about.
Calderón’s philosophical drama tells the story of a crown prince, Segismundo, secretly imprisoned in isolation from birth because of the prophecy that he would bring disaster to his country. When his remorseful father decides Segismundo should be given a single day to prove the prophecy wrong, he is drugged and brought to the palace. The twenty-five-year-old Segismundo awakes to find himself a king. He reacts with violent anger about the lifetime of deprivation and humiliation he has unjustly suffered, and he loses control. After injuring a palace servant and attempting to rape the first woman he has ever seen, he is again drugged and returned to his prison where he is told it was all a dream.
His people now realize his plight, however, and a rebel army storms his prison and releases him. Segismundo is unsure whether this is a dream or reality, but he resolves to act as if every fortunate occurrence in experience might be a dream gift from which he might awaken (and lose) at any moment. The rebellion secures his throne and he becomes a benevolent ruler – or maybe just has a very good dream…
Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera’s (The Motorcycle Diaries, Marisol) adaptation sharpens the plot slightly, and brings a contemporary wit and sensibility to the dialogue.
As befits a training exercise, the production values at A.C.T. are minimal and many of the actors are being pushed to the limits of their current abilities. What a great choice this is for actor training, however, as the Shakespearean scope brings out their best. The philosophic complexity which questions notions of privilege, and allegorically explores the possibility that God does not exist, makes them learn to structure rhetorical arguments in intellectually and emotionally communicative ways.
And that they do! In particular, Ryan Williams French is a moving Segismundo and Philip Estrera as the old counselor, Clotaldo, who teaches the prince humanism is outstanding. Dominique Salerno brings enormous joy and humor to her cross-gendered performance as the clownish old servant, Clarin.
This production is surprisingly concrete, lacking some of the dreamy vibe for which Rivera is especially known. (If you ever get the chance, catch his References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot for the best example.) The trade-off is that Director Domenique Lozano focuses her production around the very timely question of what constitutes honor, and honorable behavior. Perhaps that is especially appropriate. As I write, we are entering week three of a most dishonorable shutdown of the Federal Government, which certainly feels less like a bad dream than a very solid reality. For anyone who loves classical drama, this is an opportunity that must not be missed.
October 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment
It is one thing to believe that the genius of Shakespeare’s plays lies in their universality, and quite another to put that belief into practice. CalShakes’ current offering of The Winter’s Tale has the courage to do the latter, and the results are stunning.
Patricia McGregor’s production is cast entirely with actors-of-color, and not in that allegedly “colorblind” way that whitewashes their experience, but in a manner that invites serious consideration of the stories that diverse communities tell about their particular histories. By particularizing the story, she paradoxically enlarges it.
A Winter’s Tale is one of the last, perhaps the very last, complete play Shakespeare wrote. The plot is straightforward: King Leontes goes (literally) mad with jealousy, and publicly accuses his wife, Herminone, of adultery with his best friend – a visiting king, Polixenes, who barely escapes the country with his life. Leontes imprisons and then publicly tries the pregnant queen – whose only defender is a powerless waiting woman, Paulina. In prison, Hermione gives birth to a daughter, whom Leontes immediately sentences to death by being abandoned in the wilderness. Paulina reports that the combined strain of childbirth and the humiliation of the show trial has killed Hermione. Within minutes, the queen’s innocence is definitively established. The suddenly remorseful King goes into seclusion and mourning, keeping Paulina near him as both scourge and spiritual counselor.
Sixteen years later, and in his own country, the son of Polixines has fallen in love with a country girl. Knowing that his father would never agree to his marriage to someone of such different social class, he attempts to hide his courtship, but when discovered flees with his intended bride to Leontes’ kingdom, seeking asylum.
The play ends with a series of reunions as the country girl is revealed to be the daughter Leontes had ordered abandoned years before, paving the way for the reconciliation of the two kings in the union of their children. Stunningly, and seemingly miraculously, the terrible wrong perpetrated against Queen Hermione is also righted, allowing Leontes to find peace and forgiveness.
Dignity and Mythmaking
The center of this production is the simply astonishing Margo Hall in the role of Paulina. Reminding us boldly that even when most disempowered African-American women have a history of retaining their dignity, and courageously speaking truth to power in circumstances of personal peril, she makes new sense of the most difficult character in the play. Most productions never adequately explain why Hermione’s staunch defender would dedicate her life to serving the man who destroyed the innocent queen, instead of going all-Hamlet on him with a revenge plot. This Paulina is the only thing holding a crumbling community together, and that she chooses to heal it is an heroic choice rooted in the very specific circumstances of disenfranchisement. To Paulina, the culture is more important than any individual agenda.
Like all members of this cast, Hall plays multiple roles. Her charming take on the son of the family into which the lost daughter, Perdita, is adopted affirms that her performative approach to telling this “hoary, old story” is to render the characters as types. Playing a pre-adolescent male kid who is all bravado and street smarts, without the stature to justify it, she finds essences without weighing them down with irrelevant psychological detail. Far from being shallow, however, these characters are definitive. They are not stereotypes, but archetypes.
A Woman’s Play
Led by a pair of sisters, Patricia and Paloma McGregor as stage and movement directors, respectively, this is very much a female-focused production. As brilliant as Hall is, she is evenly matched by Omoze Idehenre as the wronged queen Hermione, (later doing a great doubling as the empty-headed, giggly Mopsa.) Her Hermione begins, not as a typical, stiff British-style monarch, but as an effusive earth-mother. It is a gasp inducing moment, then, when she is led on in chains to her trial in an orange jumpsuit. The contemporary appearance is terrifying both in its perp-walk familiarity and its extraordinary contrast to her previous silhouette. She appeared dazed and on the verge death. Awakened to defend herself, however, she spoke with the enormous power and unflinching courage we associate with Oprah rising to the occasion.
Tristan Cunningham, as the daughter Perdita, supplied the same level of energy, although a quite different kind of intensity, for the second half of the play that Idehenre brought to the first. She was charming, but far from a fairy-tale princess waiting for her glass slipper. I’ve never seen an interpretation of Perdita so convincingly honest as Cunningham’s when she told her boyfriend, Florizel, that their love cannot work. He needs to go back to the court and accede to his father’s wishes. Nothing suggested she believed Florizel could, or would, deliver on his promises. It was not personal, just world-weary.
Male-Bonding and Pride
That the story ultimately centers on the women as figures of redemption, healing and hope, does not mean that the men in the cast were not also delivering terrific performances. L. Peter Callender as Leontes was believable in his jealousy, frightening in his insanity and heart-rending in his repentance. He, too, was drawing of archetypes of prideful men whose promise is undone by making fast, stupid and seemingly irredeemable mistakes. Aldo Billingslea as the object of his jealousy, King Polixenes, made believable the intense male-bonding between the life-long friends, and therefore the devastation he experienced when betrayed. In the second act when he moves to the position of antagonist to his own son’s happiness we can easily understand from where his suspicion and distrust comes.
Tyee Tilghman embodied the least likely doubling I have ever seen, as Prince Florizel in the second act, after having played the older courtier Camillo in the first act. Both characters were finely rendered and nuanced, but it was watching his versatility that was the real pleasure. Christopher Michael Rivera rounded out the cast as the charismatic conman Autolycus, doubling as the self-sacrificing Antigonus – the guy that famously “exits chased by a bear.”
The Power of Performance
This is not a production without flaws. It opened with an inserted, and unnecessary, framing device in which the cast is situated as a troupe of traveling carnival personnel. The bit seemed such a direct quotation of Pippin that one expected the cast to break into a chorus of “Magic To Do.” When it interrupted the show, not once but twice, with cringe-inducing anachronistic dialogue and bogus audience interaction -for no good reason, mind you – it became irritating. Presumably, we were being given some rationale to believe in them as story-tellers. The performances in the play proper were so outstanding, however, that no other explanations were required. We got the conventions that allowed cast members to play multiple roles and for the story to hover – largely due to Katherine Nowacki’s wittily eclectic costumes – in an uncertain time period. (Earlier in the summer the company produced a sleek, minimalist Romeo and Juliet with a seven-person cast which definitively proved with great acting, no frames are required.)
The play was also set against quite attractive, but oddly useless, scenery. Michael Locher created a prominent 50′s Airstream trailer to ground the framing device, which later opened to reveal a dazzling interior, but in reality it was little more than a prop table. Even stranger, the stage was dominated by a huge, rolling two-story palace unit with a built-in spiral staircase. It seemed incredibly promising, but was never employed beyond use as a treehouse/hideaway for the minor character Mamillius.
A Winter’s Tale is not among the Shakespearean favorites, largely because its folklorish qualities can seem so culturally specific and archaic that it fails to remain relevant. CalShakes gets to the heart of folklore – keeping and cherishing cultural memory – by daring to remind us this is not just a story about some misty European heritage. It has enormous humanity, but only by seeing it in the unfamiliar guise of a tale told about all-too-recent history, (or maybe contemporary urban life), are we reminded from what pressures such grace emerges.
October 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
With the release of Jos Whedon’s MUCH ADO on DVD, I thought I might repost the link to my original review praising this enjoyable update.Off to get my very own copy!
September 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
What’s in store for classical theater fans this fall? While summer is traditionally the Shakespeare season, there is quite a bit that might interest an aficionado of the pre-modern theater coming soon to the San Francisco area:
Classical Theater Fall in SF
Macbeth, 9/21-22, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival at Jerry Garcia Auditorium, info
Imaginary Invalid, 9/5-29, Pacific Repertory in Carmel, info
Winter’s Tale, 9/25-10/20, California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda, info
Midsummer Night’s Dream, 10/3-20, Pacific Repertory in Carmel, info
Country Wife, 10/9-19, ACT’s MFA program fall repertory at the “Costume Shop.” info
Sueño (Life is a Dream), 10/9-19, ACT’s MFA program fall repertory at the “Costume Shop.” info
Macbeth, thru 10/16, We Players at Fort Point, info
Midsummer Night’s Dream, 10/18-27, UC Berkeley, info
Julius Caesar, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s extensive tour, many dates and locations, info
Antigone, 11/10, Cutting Ball Theater’s free Sunday Reading Series, info
Troilus and Cressida, 11/17-12/15, Impact Theatre, info
All’s Well that Ends Well, 12/5-15, Mendocino Theatre Company, info
Romeo and Juliet, 12/13-28, Ninjaz of Drama at the Phoenix, info to be posted here
The Hollow Crown Series: Richard II, 9/20, Henry IV, Part 1, 9/29 Henry IV, Part 2, 10/4, Henry V, 10/11 PBS info
September 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Comedy
Marin Shakespeare Company’s excellent production of All’s Well that Ends Well, directed by Robert Currier, convinces me again of the virtues of the play – the most underrated in the canon.
The agenda of this blog is to think about Shakespeare in performance, but simultaneously to explore the challenges of performing Shakespeare. As with diving competitions, it is not just the execution that counts, but also the degree of difficulty! All’s Well is both the best executed and the most difficult of Marin’s three-play repertoire this summer.
For my purposes, it is a terrific example of a show that presents very specific challenges, and as a consequence of those difficulties is rarely performed.
Who Rules the World? Girls!
The first challenge is simply lack of familiarity: The play has long been neglected in part because the best roles are for women. The protagonist is the ingénue, Helen, and the other role for which the play is known is the Countess Roussillon – “the most beautiful old woman’s part every written,” according to Shaw. The great actor-managers of the 18th and 19th centuries saw no opportunities in the play for themselves, so it was not until the 20th century that it began to find its place in the repertoire.
The tone of the play can be very challenging, as well. The play is obviously structured as a comedy, but like many Shakespeare comedies from his middle period, (Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida) it is not exactly funny. As the Marin production demonstrates, however, when you get it right the play is magical.
Anticipating the Romances
The plot of the play is, like those of the Romances, a borderline fairy tale. Helen is the orphaned daughter of a great physician. She is now a ward of the recently widowed Countess of Roussillon. She loves the Countess’ son, Bertram, the new Count, but the difference in their social stature is too great for any hope of a match.
With the Countess’ encouragement Helen follows Bertram to the court of the King of France, where the king is slowly dying of a mysterious ailment that is draining his vitality. (For those unfamiliar with Elizabethan euphemisms, the diagnosis of his “fistula” – if recognized at all – is confusing. How can this be put delicately? In modern terms he needs the attention of a urologist, not a proctologist. It is not coincidental that only a fair, young virgin can cure him.)
When the king recovers his health, he is so grateful to Helen that he grants her the choice of any man in the realm as a husband. She selects Bertram, but for the first time in this fairy tale world we are asked to confront a reality. Bertram is not consulted in this match. He is forced to marry her although he openly says he does not love her and is not ready to be married.
Bertram flees without consummating the marriage, and leaves Helen a set of “impossible” conditions for their reconciliation. As in all folklore, the rest of the play is spent with Helen finding ways, through pluck and intelligence, to meet these bizarre requirements and finally win her husband’s love.
When Youth Isn’t Wasted on the Young
In performance both lead characters often come off as unsympathetic. Helen seems dense while Bertram is a jerk. The riskiest move Currier made toward realizing his vision of this play was casting newcomers Carla Pauli as Helena and Adam Magill as Bertram. Some of company’s casting stretches were not so successful in other shows this summer, but these two delivered affecting, heartfelt and convincingly youthful performances that overcame the most common problems encountered in performance.
Helen’s initial choice of Bertram usually seems self-deluding, and her dedication to him even after he has abandoned her can seem pointlessly masochistic. Pauli is so young, and plays the character as so humble, that both actions seem plausible. Interestingly, the play is also exceedingly frank about the character’s understanding of, and interest in, sexuality. She is, after all, a doctor’s daughter. For example, she discusses her virginity almost dispassionately, as something she is more than ready to lose, but only on her own terms. Victorians were appalled at this openness, but in Pauli’s case it made her a very convincing teenager.
Bertram is an even bigger challenge. His rejection of Helen is often played as pure snobbery and even when not intended he often comes across as irredeemably selfish. That is, at least partially, a result of casting actors well into their late twenties or early thirties in the role. (The play does not tell us exactly how old Bertram is, but Currier interprets the description of him as too young to be allowed to go to war – in an era where 16 and 17 year old nobles were often sent off to gain some experience – as meaning that he could still be in his mid-teens.) Magill convincingly parlays his youth into the impression of one more sinned against than sinning- after all, as Jonathan Bate points out in the new RSC Shakespeare, we feel very differently about Shakespeare’s female characters forced into early marriages against their wills than critics have traditionally treated Bertram.
The tall, angular Magill also bears a striking resemblance to the stunning Jessica Powell who plays his mother. She has been a stalwart of the summer, playing roles in all three productions, but it is here that she really shines as the loving, but torn, Countess. Her strong-willed gravity lends Magill’s Bertram extra integrity, even when they find themselves at odds. He seems very much her son.
Although often thought of a large show, Marin has edited it so that it is performed by just nine actors. The cast is without a weak link. Scott Coopwood is a charismatic Lafeu, the nobleman who is the closest thing to a father figure to both Bertram and Helen. He also effortlessly absorbs lines and functions traditionally performed by minor characters, allowing the cast to be streamlined.
James Hiser is very funny as the braggart soldier, Parolles, whose cowardice may account not only for his absence from battle but his otherwise unexplainable hostility to sex. (He counsels Bertram to flee his marriage bed, and is later discovered to have intended to subvert an assignation Bertram pursues with a local girl, Diana.) It is when the character is hoodwinked by his fellow soldiers and his cowardice laid bare that Hiser is best. Parolles’ realization that he has lost his honor, but has to live with his disgrace forever, was heartbreaking.
Speaking of that local girl, Diana, – the character was superbly played by Luisa Fransconi, who was so delightful in Livermore Shakespeare’s The Liar earlier in the summer. Heather Cherry played her bombshell mother with equal zest.
Jack Powell played the King of France broadly, literally doing a jig when cured of his illness. He became most believable and affecting late in the play when he was paired with his real life wife, Jessica – playing the Countess – trying to sort out the confusions of the script.
The production was set in 1962, which I began thinking didn’t really work and came to believe didn’t really matter – except in the case of the clown, Lavatch, played by Lucas McClure. Lavatch is very much in the mold of Twelfth Night‘s Feste, only lascivious. The only thing seemingly grounded in the real world of 1962 was McClure’s wonderful portrayal of Lavatch as a second-rate folk singer. He was hilarious as a combination jester/doorman who was tripping ahead to the summer of love half a decade before anybody else.
Marin uses a single unit set by Shannon Walsh for all three productions, and it is probably too much to ask that it work equally well as a Spanish Castle for the Spanish Tragedy, a Southwestern town for the adaptation of Comedy of Errors set in west Texas, and as Paris, Florence, and Rousillion in this show. The truth is, for this show it doesn’t work. The Rothko and Mondrian hanging on the Mission-style walls just seemed ridiculous. Eventually, however, one settles into the play by treating the background as neutral. It is certainly no weirder than the Tudor-style Elizabethan playhouse of Shakespeare’s time, the reality of which one was to ignore.
The lack of realistic specificity about 1962 did not harm the performance much, however, because its timeless folktale nature must be brought to the fore anyway. That, Currier did brilliantly, especially in the wonderful moment in which the King is cured, ironically accompanied by Moog music and pre-disco lighting effects.
The program and a pre-show talk hinted as a surprise ending, but what emerged was actually an extremely logical non-ending. All may be well that ends well, but in this case we don’t really know what will happen after the curtain falls. We are left to imagine the speed of Bertram’s maturing, and the depth of his repentance, and maybe even the sincerity of his appreciation for Helen. Currier’s Lady-or-the-Tiger finish felt neither like a surprise nor a cop-out, but an entirely Shakespearean moment in which we must piece out their imperfections with our minds.
September 5, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Not “The,” But Certainly “A,” Comedy of Errors
The Marin Shakespeare Company’s country-western version of Comedy of Errors, adapted and directed by Lesley Schisgall Currier and Robert Currier and set in “old-timey” Texas, is silly and slight, but despite it coming from a very different place than is my usual taste it was nonetheless filled with enough delights to keep me entertained and intrigued.
The Comedy of Errors is an outlier among Shakespeare’s comedies. Although “city” comedies were a popular genre in his time, this is Shakespeare’s one and only play in this less-character-driven style. Errors is an adaptation of a play by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus. It is thought by many – including Marin Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director Robert Currier – to be his earliest work. The widespread, but imho teleological, argument is that “early” equals “not very good.” The play is often performed, fast and loose, with plenty of buttressing. (In the late ’80s, in a version easily accessible online, The Flying Karamazov Brothers performed it as an extended juggling act.)
While disagreeing that the play lacks substance, even those of us that find hidden depth in the text accede that it is, fundamentally, a farce of mistaken identity. While I missed a serious exploration of family loss and reconciliation (“Ugh,” I can hear the directors say, “go watch Pericles!”), from the perspective of pure performance there is lots to see and discuss.
It Happened Like This…
The plot concerns a scattered family. Long ago, parents Aegeon and Aemilia suffered a shipwreck from which each managed to save an identical twin son and that son’s servant, “coincidentally” also a twin, but were parted from each other. Separately, they each managed to see their charges raised to adulthood, without ever knowing the fates of their lost spouses and children.
Years later, Aegeon (of Syracuse in the play, but Amarillo in this version), is traveling around the Mediterranean (Texas) in search of his long lost wife and her charges, and also his own son and servant who had set out on a similar mission years earlier and never returned. He arrives in Ephesus (Abilene) only to find that the cities are at odds, and he is arrested and sentenced to hang at the end of the day if he cannot find someone who will pay his surety.
Unbeknownst to him, his son and his servant have also arrived in town, but have hidden their origins, and move about unhindered. Unbeknownst to them, both the son’s and servant’s lost identical twins are living and prospering in this city. The “errors” of the play are the constant mistaking of the visiting twin for his resident brother, resulting in the visitor being showered with gifts, praise and even a romantic encounter with his “wife,” (although his heart belongs to the unmarried sister-in-law) while his bewildered brother is systematically denied his money, his home and even his identity. Meanwhile the twin servants are constantly encountering the wrong master. Beatings ensue. In the end, a local abbess manages to sort everything out by finally bringing all the family members on stage at once, and providing a surprise twist of her own. No spoiler: if you don’t know how it ends, go see it!
In performance, the most interesting question is how to handle the two sets of identical twins – given that finding even one set of talented twin thespians is not an easy task. Most productions do the next best thing – which is to cast similar looking actors and dress them in nearly identical twin costumes, although usually in some color-coded variation to help us sort them. An interesting variation, perfectly in the spirit of farce, is to cast actors who look absolutely nothing like each other and then dress them alike. I’ve seen a hysterically funny performance in which one of the twin servant Dromios was played by a short, rotund, African-American woman and the other by a tall, thin, almost freakishly white dude. The ease with which we, as audience, could tell them apart rendered even funnier the convention by which the onstage characters could not.
Of course, the premise of the plot requires that the twins are never onstage together until the final scene, so a common solution – and the one adopted by Marin – is to cast just one actor to play the twins using the similar-looking doubles only when it finally becomes necessary.
(Okay, there is one earlier scene in which both Dromios are heard, but one is inside a house of which the other is locked out, so usually only one is visible. By far the funniest sight gag of the evening in Marin was that the interior Dromio – played by the uncredited double – was visible through a window, or would have been had he not been holding an increasingly implausible series of tall props that blocked his face. At first he seemed like an inexperienced actor who didn’t quite realize how large the bottle on the tray he was holding was, but by the time he lugged on a life-sized bust of Shakespeare, the joke was clearly intentional.)
Adopting the single actor solution requires bravura performances. Marin gets them, and then some, from Jon Deline as the Dromios and Patrick Russell as the Antipholi. Literalizing the designation of the Comedians as “Clowns” in Shakespeare’s texts, Deline was costumed (by designer Tammy Berlin) as a rodeo clown with full make-up and fake nose. He is a gifted physical comedian and his best bits were running gags, especially the beatings he took at the hands of his masters. Supplying both grunts and slapping sound effects himself, he managed to alleviate any sense of real harm, while deftly parodying stage combat conventions, by extending the series long beyond the point that his fellow actors mimed contact. The text was so loosely adapted during the entire show, that it made little difference when Deline departed from it, which he did with frequency and relish.
Russell tackled the far more difficult challenge of the Antipholi with astonishing skill. As the visiting Syracuse, he embodied the fresh-faced protagonist perfectly, with growing astonishment as his every wish is granted before it is even spoken, and without any responsibility for his actions. He also captured the loneliness of the character who seemed to be less searching for his missing twin, than trying to find himself. As the smugly privileged brother in Ephesus, his demeanor – not to mention his mounting frustration as his world fell apart – was physicalized so distinctly that it took me a couple of scenes to be certain that the twin performances were being handled by a single actor. When Ephesus finally broke down in what can only be described as a “hissy-fit,” I fell out laughing at his inventiveness.
Bravely, Marin did not color-code the performers in the show. Reappearing in unchanging costumes, they left it to the actors to make clear what is happening. I never had a moment of doubt, however, which Antipholus I was seeing.
Other kinds of virtuosity were on display in the show, from a cast that doubled as the onstage band, to an extensive display of vocal talent from numerous performers belting out both country-western standards and original songs by Leslie Harlib. Women are generally given short shrift in this play, so Amanda Salazar as Adriana and Elena Wright as Luciana made the most of their opportunities for musical expansion. Shirley Smallwood stopped the show with one great ballad incorporated into her tiny part as the Courtesan. The inserted music was not always well-integrated, and often only a line or two or a famous song was quoted as commentary, but the performances were still impressive. (I’m convinced that the Amarillo was selected as the substitute for Syracuse solely so that Russell could sing “Amarillo by Morning.”) The original songs, however, were more cohesive. Musically they were cw simplistic, but the lyrics were exceptionally clever.
Gary Grossman delivered the most irreverently funny performance of the evening as Dr. Pinch, a crackpot imported to cure the “madness” of Antipholus of Ephesus. Dr. Pinch was portrayed as an Indian Medicine Man, of the most horrendous stereotypical style possible, complete with “How”s and “Ug”s. It might have been unendurably offensive if intended as anything like a real comment on Native Americans, but Grossman performed it all in the broadest Borscht Belt style (and dialect) possible. His chants of “Hey, yu, yu, yu”s had a way of morphing into “Hava Nagila.” In under five minutes he managed to pillory everything from psychoanalysis to the nonsensical premise of the show in the Wild West.
You gotta laugh at a production that can laugh at itself.
September 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Although Shakespeare’s texts are so ubiquitous as to be said to have a kind of permanence, productions are ephemeral – things of the moment. In saying so, we usually concentrate on their overall transience, without noticing that it also gives them amazing malleability to immediately respond to their specific (and frequently changing) context while they are running.
This weekend I saw Shakespeare Santa Cruz’ penultimate performance of its production of Henry V, which reminded me again of this astonishing quality of live theater. Before I take up that context, a few words of praise for the production itself.
Director Paul Mullins*’ staging of the production was the most beautiful of any Shakespeare play I have seen in years. His extraordinarily dynamic choreography of cast movement, and composition of contrasting still moments, was often breathtaking. He and his design team (Michael Ganio, scenic; B. Modern, costume; Peter West, lighting) created an extraordinary visual experience on the recently rebuilt outdoor stage in Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, amidst the towering redwoods that surround and back the thrust.
Using as many as a dozen access points to the stage, armies appeared and disappeared in seconds. In his best stage picture, while awaiting the decisive battle at Agincourt, the ragged and dirty English army huddled fearfully on the stage while their French opponents (dressed in what looked suspiciously, and wittily anachronistically, like polo whites) hovered above them on the second story of the set open to the sky. Once the battle was fully engaged, and the tables had turned, the fierce English combatants froze in tableau while the stunned French noblemen bled out under them onto the forestage to perform. The reversal from their towering power to being literally trod underfoot was all we needed to know about what had happened in the battle, and how suddenly it had all come about.
During the presentation there were many bravura performances, some of which might have seemed more powerful to those of us who had already seen the other production in the summer’s repertoire, The Taming of The Shrew. (My review here.) The rock solid team of Fred Arsenault as Captain Gower and Conan McCarty as Captain Fluellen (Petruchio and his servant Grumio in Shrew) demonstrated what repertory performance is all about in incisively-realized supporting roles. Kit Wilder’s turn as Pistol provided expert comic relief. William Elsman’s over-the-top (in the best possible way) portrait of the Dauphin in the seldom-performed scene about a sonnet written to his horse could easily have been interpolated from a production of Equus for all its sensual intensity.
The hard-working actors playing multiple roles were especially effective. Marion Adler as Mistress Quickly and the French lady-in-waiting Alice, V Craig Heidenreich as The Archbishop of Canterbury, The King of France, and Sir Thomas Erpingham, and Robert Nelson as Nym and the scene-stealing Monsieur Le Fer were all models of versatility. The company’s artistic director, Marco Barricelli, as the play’s famous narrating Chorus and the Duke of Burgundy was the charismatic anchor for the evening.
A production of Henry V ultimately rests on the shoulders of its title character, who speaks a third of the total lines in the play. Charles Pasternak returns after having previously played Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part II for the company. Narrative continuity possibly contributes to his compelling, confident performance of Henry as fully-redeemed prodigal. Pasternak has a powerful presence, and a great theatrical voice, that fills the space to create the illusion of an heroic icon.
Interpretively, I must say, that performance was surprising, as was the overall vision of the play that surrounded it. I have never seen a more unrelentingly positive interpretation of Henry. How, and why exactly, that might be, is the main subject of essay.
Henry Light and Dark
Henry V is an ambiguous play, even by Shakespearean standards. Henry’s motivations are often hard to read, but from his first scene in the play when considering a declaration of war it is not clear whether he is more manipulating or manipulated. Post-Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction debacle of the Bush Era, it is hard to see either as entirely admirable, however.
Such careful balancing is so thoroughly ingrained into the text, that in a famous essay (which I discussed at length in this previous review) the play is used as an example of conflicting and irresolvable perceptions.
Of course, its best-known incarnation is still Olivier’s 1944 film, produced as pro-British propaganda during World War II. As is often the case in the more visual medium of film, the text was heavily edited both to streamline and simplify it. One of the main thrusts of that editing was to remove all the incidents from the play that complicate the picture of Henry as anything but noble. By the time of Kenneth Branaugh’s 1989 remake, both the world and critical fashion has shifted. The latter film is far darker, and it does not begin to enter into the bleak negativity of many theatrical productions that now directly comment on current politics.
Mullins’ production does not cut the complicating incidents, such as Henry’s order to massacre the prisoners-of-war, nor his “discovery” of a plot against his life by Lord Scroop (who historically had as strong of a claim to the throne as Henry) and the subsequent execution of the conspirators, but at least in the performance I saw all of these incidents were treated as fleeting and absolutely justified under the circumstances. Even when momentarily highlighted, as when we heard the shots executing the conspirators, one flinch and it was forgotten.
The most fearsome speech in the play, in which Henry threatens:
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
If [you will] not [surrender], why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.
…to force the surrender of Harfleur, was delivered with neither pity nor remorse as if it were exemplary leadership.
At least superficially, Santa Cruz would seem to be about the last place on earth you would see such an interpretation. (For far-flung readers not in the know, the city and the university have a reputation for leftist politics even among nearby San Franciscans, which is saying something.)
A Hawk in the Forest
Two things might account for this unexpected hawkishness. The first is that Shakespeare Santa Cruz is a “theater” in the fullest sense of the word, not just an institution offering a product, but a community. The audience is very much part of the equation, and they are a very educated and savvy one. The Festival’s bookstore offers not just the usual knick-knacks and sweatshirts, but a full shelf of used books that might well come from the English faculty’s cast-offs. I’ve seen less erudite reading lists in graduate courses. In performance they are so quick that they can get ahead of the performance. The Hostess (Mistress Quickly) has a famous speech about Falstaff’s last moments that innocently undercuts its own point with unintentional double-entendre, punning on the Elizabethan euphemism “stones” for testicles:
Hostess: So [he] bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
In the Santa Cruz performance, Marion Adler’s delivery began to get laughs as soon as she began, long before she even said the word “stone.” (I experienced a sudden wave of nostalgia remembering my high school years. While my classmates were chuckling at the schoolyard classics like, “Give us a light there, ho,” I could point out where the real “dirty” stuff was. Nerd popularity.)
More to the point, I realized by about the middle of the second act that this was an audience that did not need to moral ambiguities to be spelled out for them. Murmurs swept through the crowd at each of the critically-fetishized ambiguous moments, nearly to the point of distraction. Just behind me, a patron loudly whispered, “That is what Cheney said,” in the middle of Canterbury’s great speech justifying going to war.
Most scholars agree that in Shakespeare’s own time this was a popular hit because of what we would now call “jingoism,” even if twentieth century experience has greatly complicated it. It is interesting to see the play performed so nationalistically, but it takes confidence in the audience to do so without fearing that you will be seen as advocating that position. Only when the performers and the audience have great faith in each other can the ambiguity of the text be in the audience’s understanding instead of the company’s spin.
An even more specific, and sad, circumstance is that earlier in the week in which I saw the play, the host university announced that they could no longer subsidize the company and were closing it. (See my longer post here.) The performance I saw was given in the last two days of the company’s existence – at least in its current form. I wondered, without having any way to know, if the heroic Henry might be due to the embattled circumstance in which the company found itself, and the natural inclination to coalesce around a charismatic leader in a time of crisis. In other words, I wonder if the production became less ambiguous, and more about a tough underdog fighting against a larger enemy in response to the circumstance under which the play was being performed. There was a talk-back after the performance I saw, which included a lot of talking back, but little of it about the play, which would indicate that the closing was on the audience’s collective mind. I speculate that Pasternak may have been taking on some of Henry’s challenge to serve as figurehead for a fight against overwhelming odds.
Of course, I hope for the company’s survival, and mourn the loss of its university subsidy, but my point here is not to rehash quarrels to which I am not an insider and about which I have too little knowledge. It is to wonder if the very effective (if surprising) nature of this performance might have been a response to the conditions of the moment. I had actually expected the opposite reading, the bigger picture being the crisis in Syria, the bombing of which seemed imminent on the day of the play, but as they say, “all politics is local.” I cannot prove my thesis, not having seen the production before the university’s announcement, but if it is right I celebrate the instant adaptability of theater to respond to the needs and attitudes of its audience. It is part of the reason that, despite eternal signs of its decline, the theater is as perennial as the grass.
*By way of disclosure, I should I should mention that I attended theater school with Mullins, whose acting I much admired, although I have not been in communication with him since. His work as a director post-dates our acquaintance.