shakespeare

Seattle Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer Night’s Dream
Author: Shakespeare
Date Attended: 5th November 2011
Venue: Seattle Shakespeare Company performed at Intiman
Director: Sheila Daniels

What elements need to work to convey the story effectively? 

  • Puck needs to lead you on your journey into the forest
  • Magic and transformation skillfully portrayed
  • Hermia and Lysander as your lovable rock
  • A strong Helena so that you love more than pity her
  • Ridiculous and delusional rude mechanicals

How did the production’s interpretation serve the story?

Let’s start with the lovers.

Sheila Daniels’ production took a brave step in choosing to cast Lysander as a woman, making Hermia’s father forbidding them to marry more relevant than just dislike of a nerdy kid in comparison to the buff Demetrius. This choice was incredibly compelling throughout, if only they hadn’t changed the name from Lysander to Lysandra. The scansion didn’t pan well for me, but that was literally my only complaint about the choice. In every scene the relationship was well-developed and engaging.

This is the first time I’ve seen the play live since I was in high school and as such there were many things that I had completely forgotten from childhood that never bothered me. However, now my post-liberal arts education makes me cringe at Helena’s comparison of herself to a spaniel. However, Helena was sad, funny and hopelessly in love with a moron. I still felt the urge to shake her at the spaniel moment, but my heart felt more for her than I ever thought possible. I still wanted her to get over Demetrius, but her characterization of Helena was so compelling and served the story well that I’m 100% satisfied that Demetrius gets whammied into loving her.

This is the only time I’ve read or seen Hippolyta and Theseus as real characters. Their development with Hippolyta as a warrior and not necessarily completely won over by Theseus yet, served to make them more than mere accessories who can’t wait to get married. Hippolyta was given agency and I was captivated by their relationship.

Now to the fairies.

This production chose to give the fairies a primal, animalistic, tribal quality replete with hissing and furs. The downside of the choice, was in some ways it robbed the magic of the fairy land. The hissing was actually what alienated me most. I want the fairies to draw me into their world. I want Puck to guide me on a journey, but the choice to hiss and snarl into the audience looked as if the fairies were trying to scare us for some reason and gave what transpired more of a malicious nature as opposed to a playful accident. Mostly, because of cuts or the behaviors of the fairies, I didn’t identify with Puck and was left with a disjointed feeling. This isn’t to say that my fairies have to be glittery and plucky, but a little more humanity and playfulness as opposed to creepy would have served the play better.

The rude mechanicals delivered wonderfully. Bottom was pompous and loveable and their patchwork attire sold the haphazard nature of their band.

Why this play now?

It’s difficult to say why this play is important. Essentially, I feel like it’s summed up in Puck’s line “What fools these mortals be,” but only when it serves as a comparison to the fairies who are equally foolish. To oversimplify Midsummer is just a love story with fairy interference. As such, the play is done largely for entertainment rather than to serve a larger aesthetic or global purpose. The Lysander choice and the Hippolyta and Theseus relationship is what made the production feel vital, or at least contemporary. Though the choices they made tried to elevate the play higher than a simple romcom it still begs the question why we as an audience continue to attend the play. My answer is that the belief in magic and love are vital to existence even if the concepts are a tad hokey. We continue to attend to behold transformation and hope for a magical land to transport us.

OSF’s Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar
Author: Shakespeare
Date Attended: 15 September 2011 matinée
Venue: New Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Director: Amanda Dehnert

What elements need to work in order for the story to be successfully conveyed?

  • Generally, presenting a side in the wrong and a side in a right, however, this production didn’t do that and I was greatly impressed with the choices they made to support the decision
  • Human side of Brutus
  • Marc Antony

How did the production’s interpretation serve the story?

In the lobby and courtyard of the theatre, the production team created large banners with two interpretations of assassinated politicians with quotes on either side supporting the title. For instance, Abraham Lincoln had one side labeled TYRANT and another EMANCIPATOR. They presented the play in the round in a blackbox space with a female Caesar. Calpurnia was cut from the story, and there was a greater focus on the text. The play had a timeless feel. One character took pictures with a digital camera, they fought with quarter staffs, in one scene they used a gun, and they stabbed Caesar with knives. The costumes also reflected a timeless quality with a focus on flowing or draping fabrics.

The actors were in the theatre as audience came in and they spoke with audience as actors, not as their characters before the show. There was also an element of audience participation. Whenever Caesar lifted her arms the audience was asked to applaud, stand, scream, and cheer. Sometimes this level of audience dependency comes off annoying, however the effect worked well and propelled the audience immediately into the story.

Because we were in the round we felt conspiratorial with the assassins and then during Marc Antony’s speech, we felt allied with Caesar. I enjoyed that there was never clearly a right or wrong side. The audience became a hive-mind answering to whomever was giving you a more compelling cause to action.

Why this play now?

I must say that this play employed many conventions I happen to love, including theatre in the round, actors on stage at the start of the show as actors not as their characters, bare stage, double-casting, gender-blind casting, emotional intensity, and live sound effects. I have never seen Julius Caesar staged and I don’t know if any productions after will live up to this. I had always assumed that in order for the play to be successful the audience would have to believe that Caesar was righteous and good with no possibility of Brutus being in the right. The production instead showed two sides of everyone – the just and the vengeful; righteous and hypocrite – which made the play all the more powerful and made Brutus, Marc Antony, and Caesar all too human.

I was sitting among several middle school students from San Francisco and eavesdropped on their responses. They had some really interesting observations and some silly ones. They didn’t think the blood looked real, which I think is more a factor of it not being a movie. One student said he thought it was too bloody to the point of making him queasy. They also talked extensively about the choice to have Caesar’s ghost on stage after she’s been killed. Caesar walked among the remaining actors throughout the rest of the play, sometimes sitting and watching and occasionally welcoming them to their death by wiping clay on their face – an effect I truly enjoyed, but one in which I overheard the students say “But she was dead.”

The play is more about mob mentalities than justice. Brutus kills Caesar for Rome, not for personal gain, but he’s easily swayed into a mob sense of justice as I never believe Cassius acts in Rome’s best interest but his brother’s. Marc Antony with his amazing speech is able to convince the community to take up arms to revenge Caesar’s death. The murder of the poet Cinna was wonderfully staged to showcase this sense of Rome spinning out of control with blood lust.

One of the most successful uses of the space was the utilization of live sound. During the scenes in which Cassius is talking about the ground shaking, and portents of doom, the actors and crew banged on the seats in a random-rhythmic way from behind, sending at a loud vibration up my spine at random intervals. They also lit the catwalk at one point, while the stage was completely dark and actors talked in low light center stage adding to the Brechtian no-seriously-this-is-a-play, we’re-in-a-theatre, aesthetic-distance-is-awesome way.

An element I had not considered until seeing the play is the righteous suicides throughout the story. Portia, Cassius, Brutus all commit suicide it seems to protect themselves from a greater shame. In a way it feels anti-Shakespearean. We do not see a good guy vanquish a bad guy, which adds to the duality presented by the play. Are their actions for the greater good? Or, are they selfishly motivated?

OSF’s Henry IV Part Two

Henry IV Part Two
Author: Shakespeare
Date attended: 14 September 2011 evening
Venue: Elizabethan Stage at OSF
Director: Lisa Peterson

What elements need to work in order for the story to be conveyed successfully?

  • Hal needs to be the Hal from Part One in his debauchery, slowly building to the King’s death which is his impetus to grow up
  • Falstaff and Hal’s relationship still needs to be strong so we feel the pang when Hal rejects him after his coronation
  • Clearly explaining the civil war and denoting the opposing sides so it’s understood

How did the production’s interpretation serve the story?

OSF’s production implemented a loose rock and roll, timeless theme. The costumes weren’t necessarily any period. And Rumor, the prologuist, acted as a master of ceremonies wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt. The transitions tried to increase the show’s pace by playing guitar riffs while characters ran back and forth in a wonderfully choreographed way. One of the interesting choices was making Poins deaf. Though I felt like that actually detracted from the relationship between Hal and Poins because you didn’t get a sense of back and forth. Instead, Poins signed his responses and Hal acted as his translator. I thought it was interesting though, and I’d be curious to hear the reasoning behind it because I’m intrigued.

Why this play now?

The difficulty with Henry IV Part Two is nothing exciting happens. There’s a war but we don’t see it. There are no tragic deaths except the King, which isn’t tragic but necessary. There are few emotional moments and the ones that could be dubbed emotional generally aren’t because we haven’t seen the characters together until this moment. There aren’t even that many scenes in which we see relationships build. Henry IV, both parts, are more about Hal than the King and, yet in Part Two Hal is only in five scenes. There is only one scene with Hal and Falstaff together. And only one scene with Hal and the King. On top of that there’s the political story which has characters that come in once and are never seen again, but are continually referenced often by different versions of their name. So, it’s a difficult show to communicate story because it’s talking about political shiftings as opposed to showing them.

What holds the play together is Falstaff. As such, his connections with Hal, Shallow, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet need to be strong so that Hal’s rejection of him at the end of the show is entirely heartbreaking. Sadly, the production didn’t seem to focus on that relationship and as a result what happened was a series of scenes that seemed little connected to one another except that Falstaff was there. This ultimately is the Bard’s fault for giving the script so little emotion or action. If there’s only one scene with Falstaff and Hal, then in that one scene, we have to know their whole relationship and then see it dashed by the end.

In terms of what this play has to say now, I feel like Henry IV is about growing up, fitting into a role, and evaluating your future. This applies to all characters in the show, not just Hal. In the dramaturgy program, there was a quote that summed up what the show offers:

The character of Rumor opens the play with his prologue, setting the tone for what is to come: uncertainty, reversals of fortune and most of all, false expectations. Much of the play that follows is spent building up those expectations among both the characters and the audience and then dashing them, allowing the reality to be shown as somehow false or cheap or hollow.

OSF’s Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure
Author: Shakespeare
Date attended: 14 September 2011 matinée
Venue: Angus Bowmer at OSF
Director: Bill Rauch

What elements need to work in order for the story to be successfully conveyed?

  • Humanizing (fallibility) of all three leads Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke and hopefully in humanizing conveying some likability
  • Angelo’s attraction to Isabella and the choice to proposition her
  • Claudio’s rationale that his life is worth more than Isabella’s chastity
  • Isabella’s innocence, naïvety, and stubbornness which would actually make her believe that her chastity is worth more than her brother’s life, which would leave Juliet unmarried to raise a child on her own
  • Isabella’s growth to compassion and greater human understanding by the end to plead for Angelo’s life

How did the production’s interpretation serve the story?

OSF’s interpretation is Vienna, an American city sometime in the seventies. They integrated live Italian music (signified by titles like “Song for Work,” “Song for Lost Love,” and “Song for Death Row”) and Italian dialogue translated into the original verse by other English-speaking characters. The casting decision which made Mistress Overdone a transvestite was my favorite choice by far.

Why this play now?

I struggle with Measure for Measure, like I assume most modern audiences and readers struggle with a play claiming to be a comedy that seems to be far from it. Isabella’s insistence that her chastity is worth more than a human life, Angelo’s utter abuse of power and reneging on his promise, the Duke’s inappropriate proposal, the Duke’s punishments which do not seem fair or just, Claudio’s betrayal of Isabella, Mariana’s stupidity, etc. all frustrate me. The required elements were all there, which helped with the story, but did not address the question why do we want to produce Measure for Measure?

Clearly, Shakespeare will always be done, and there’s nothing we can do about that, nor should we. However, just because it’s Shakespeare does not necessarily mean it’s good, vital, or necessary. Some of his plays are amazing, but some are completely outdated and even the best interpretations cannot save the story from itself. I feel the same way about Taming of the Shrew. I was recently proven wrong about Comedy of Errors only in the sense that I actually enjoyed the production which I never thought possible, but I still don’t see what Comedy has to say now. Which is the question I have with Measure for Measure. 

The one moment that I gained understanding about why this production, was in the final scene when Isabella enters to begin demanding justice. The production staged her entering from the upper house right door and when she began entreating the audience, they raised house lights ever so slightly to allow us to witness his downfall. “Ah,” I thought, “We will be his judge, jury, and hopefully executioner. We get to hold corrupt politicians accountable. This is the point!” Alas, the feeling wore off as the scene went on and the Duke played with Isabella, denouncing her, making her feel crazy, and withholding the information that her brother was actually alive. I understand that the Duke wants to hide Claudio’s life from Isabella in order to test her ability to forgive. However, I can’t forgive Angelo or the Duke.

The most tragic proof of Shakespeare’s insanity when he wrote the play is Mariana. She’s not only hopelessly in love with a jackass who already turned her down once because she no longer had money, she doesn’t seem to care that he propositioned Isabella for sex, or that Angelo will believe he’s having sex with Isabella as opposed to her. Adding insult, she still wants to marry him and the Duke punishes Angelo by forcing him to marry her. She’s his punishment. And she wants to be his punishment. She then entreats Isabella to beg for Angelo’s life. By this moment, I was squirming in my seat. He was going to murder her brother. She believes her brother is dead. Let him die. Don’t beg for him. Let him go.

So, no, I don’t think I have an answer why we should put this play on now. Perhaps a different interpretation, or a modern adaptation would bring to light what is salvageable and might actually develop characters for the women instead of what is currently represented. Although I did like that Isabella didn’t give the Duke an answer to his proposal. The lights went to instant blackout as soon as she walked up to a microphone to answer. The last sound was the intake of breath before she speaks.

 

Six plays in three days

This afternoon I will begin my drive to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This will be my first trip to OSF and to say the least, I’m incredibly excited. Here’s my schedule:

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

I’m a little bummed I won’t be able to see Ghost Light or Willful. The only tickets available were out of my price range. But on the whole, I’m really happy with the schedule. Out of the list, I’ve only ever seen Henry IV, Part Two staged. And I get to do that nerdy thing of going on the backstage tour, which I never get tired of no matter how many theaters I’ve worked in.