Thursday, July 30, 2009

Never Saw Never Say Macbeth

Never Say Macbeth. Dir. Christopher J. Prouty. Perf. Tammy Caplan, John Combs, and Scott Conte. 2007. Vanguard Cinema, 2008.

I have never seen this film, but I intend to, even though it doesn't look like the best derivative ever made. The primary reason to see it is that it's available for free viewing until August 3!

Another reason for seeing it is that it's about the Macbeth Curse—and that's always good for laughs. At least, if Slings & Arrows is any indication, it is.

Try it out, and, if you get there before I do, let me know something about it.

Note:  I have now seen it! Read about it here.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shakespeare and Michael Jackson

The Wiz. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor. 1978. DVD. Universal Studios, 2008.

Posting to Bardfilm has become something of a treat reserved for the brief time between finishing one of the summer's projects and starting another. I've reached such a point, so I can pass along the connection between Michael Jackson and Shakespeare.

No, it doesn't have anything to do with the millions of fans who quoted Romeo, saying "O, that I were a glove upon that hand" (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.24). Nor is it about Michael Jackson being the Shakespeare of his age (though both were gifted performers and both died in their early fifties).

Instead, it's Michael Jackson (as the Scarecrow in The Wiz) quoting from Henry IV, Part II:

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. (2 Henry IV, III.i.31)
There you have it! Now on to the next project!

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

GRSF: Six Performances in Search of an Audience

Love's Labour's Lost. Dir. Paul Mason Barnes. Perf. Doug Scholz-Carlson, Chris Mixon, Andrew Carlson, Brian Frederick, Christopher Gerson, Evan Fuller, Tarah Flanagan, Shanara Gabrielle, Katy Mazzola, Nikki Rodenburg, Michael Fitzpatrick, David Rudi Utter, Eva Balastrieri, Jeremy van Meter, Jonathan Gillard Daly, David Coral, Nick Demeris, Katie Bowler, Moira Marek, Duncan Halleck, Theo Morgan, Ceci Bernard, Chris Bernard, and Mitchell Essar. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2009.
And I'm certain that they'll find the audience they seek.

There are only six performances left in this year's Great River Shakespeare Festival. Therefore, though innumerable other projects have been pressing on my time, I really ought to take a bit of time to add my last comments on the productions and encourage you to see them.

Two Particularly Memorable Moments in Love's Labour's Lost:

The play opens with the entire ensemble singing "In the Good Old Summertime." The remarkable thing about this decision is that the director used it as something like a dumb show of the entire play. It wasn't an easy way to introduce us to the characters—in fact, only two are named—instead, it gave us a flavor of what was to come.

Even more astonishing was Chris Gerson's delivery of Don Armado's last lines—the lines that close the play. On the page, they seem straightforward:
The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way. (V.ii.918-19)
In other words, the ladies need to exit back to France; the men need to exit to their own destinations. Or, in other other words, the upper-class men and women need to exit one way and the characters from the subplot need to exit in another way.

Instead of these possible readings, Gerson makes them into something of an epilogue—like at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It. The audience is being told which way it must go while the actors must head backstage to change out of their costumes and take off their makeup. The actors have done their work; it's now up to the audience to do its work—whatever that may be. Remarkable. Brilliant.

I have a few other points in my notes that I wish I could develop at greater length. But I can't. The first is the use of the supernumeraries—especially as they observe (as a kind of on-stage audience) the actions of the other characters. The second is the technical aplomb demonstrated in the production's stagecraft and lighting. For example, a photographer takes a photo with old-fashioned flash powder. Perfectly simultaneously (which is the extremely difficult part), the lights suddenly swell and there was a small auditory sound. Well done, whoever arranged that! The third point is that the company managed to avoid the tendency of "Guthrie asides"—additions to the text that become fairly annoying if overdone. Frequently (but not always), the characters cried "Olé!" at the mention of Don Adriano de Armado's name. But they varied it enough and didn't do it every single time—and that made it much more palatable.
The Tempest. Dir. Alec Wild. Perf. Eva Balistrieri, Andrew Carlson, David Coral, Nick Demeris, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Michael Fitzpatrick, Tarah Flanagan, Brian David Frederick, Evan Fuller, Shanara Gabrielle, Christopher Gerson, Kate Mazzola, Chris Mixon, Doug Scholz-Carlson, Nicole Rodenburg, David Rudi Utter, Jeremy van Meter, and Tessa Wild. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2009.

A few of the marvels of The Tempest:

The GRSF's production of The Tempest was less straightforward than its Love's Labour's Lost, offering a welcome variety to the festival. The play itself gives its audience more to think about, and that was reflected in this production.

An enormous amount of work must have gone into the production. Behind the main performance area (which included a number of moveable parts on an enormous circular track), an entire orchestra (it seemed) of flautists, percussionists, players-upon-crystal-goblets, and others provided the "Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not" for which the isle is so justly famous.

Caliban was played by Chris "Gollum" Gerson, and he did a remarkable job of presenting the director's view of the character—though I'm not certain I agree with it entirely. His Caliban crouched and crawled, simpered and served throughout the production. The main reason this was effective wasn't clear until the last scene. When Caliban says, "I'll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace," he almost stands almost upright—but not quite.

Tarah Flanagan's Ariel sat on top of a huge column made of metal struts. From there, she commanded a myriad of Ariels on the surface of the stage. Her delivery of the lines—especially those related to her desire for freedom from Prospero's service—was exquisite.

John Daly's Prospero was on the angry side—which was a really interesting choice. The best part of that is when he forgives all those who have wronged him. As Daly delivers the lines, it's almost like he's saying, "I forgive you—take that!" He's heaping burning coals on his enemies' heads, and that's cathartic for him and for his enemies and for his audience.

Naturally, more could be said. But you'll just have to go see one of the six remaining performances yourself. And you should.
Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Full House. Standing Ovation.

Love's Labour's Lost. Dir. Paul Mason Barnes. Perf. Doug Scholz-Carlson, Chris Mixon, Andrew Carlson, Brian Frederick, Christopher Gerson, Evan Fuller, Tarah Flanagan, Shanara Gabrielle, Katy Mazzola, Nikki Rodenburg, Michael Fitzpatrick, David Rudi Utter, Eva Balastrieri, Jeremy van Meter, Jonathan Gillard Daly, David Coral, Nick Demeris, Katie Bowler, Moira Marek, Duncan Halleck, Theo Morgan, Ceci Bernard, Chris Bernard, and Mitchell Essar. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2009.
The current season’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Great River Shakespeare Festival is remarkable. The play, one of Shakespeare’s early comedies, must be incredibly difficult to direct. Its humor depends heavily on real and phony Latin, parodies of Elizabethan rhetorical devices, and dancing Muscovites. Unless you’re into those things—I naïvely thought—you’ll miss an awful lot of the play.

Paul Barnes’ production is extremely easy to enjoy, to laugh at, to ponder, and to be moved by—and that effect must have been astonishingly difficult to produce, however easy it may look. Yesterday afternoon’s performance was sold out (we were very fortunate to have tickets), and the crowd gave the troupe a standing ovation.

In a half an hour, we’re off to see the Great River Shakespeare Festival’s Tempest, so I’ll need to elaborate more on the festival and the production later.

But I have time for some well-deserved compliments before I need to leave.

One of the most amazing things about this festival is its engagement with the community of Winona. Winona is a ridiculously-delightful town that has warmly embraced the festival—and the festival has responded by engaging with the community to a degree that I haven’t heard about in other festivals.

One of the most amazing things about this production is its ability to navigate between the uproariously-funny lines and those lines that must be taken absolutely seriously.

Chris Mixon’s Berowne has a huge percentage of the play’s lines, yet he delivers them with a freshness and sincerity that is almost overwhelming. I’ll say more about the production's use of the play’s references to Cupid later, but when he delivers these lines, we get the sense that there’s genuine regret behind his flippant comment:
Go to; it is a plague
That Cupid will impose for my neglect
Of his almighty dreadful little might.
Chris Gerson’s Don Adriano de Armado—a character who is usually played for mockery alone—brings us the extraordinary humor of the lines most of the time. However, when the lines become serious (as, again, they do surrounding the workings of Cupid), he brings them across with all the depth they deserve.

I’m singling out these two only in the interests of time. This company is entirely professional, and each actor gives a stunning performance.

Additional details to follow. In the meantime, why wait? Come to the Great River Shakespeare Festival immediately!

Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hamlet and A Game of Chess

Hamlet. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Perf. Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, and Terence Morgan. 1948. DVD. Criterion, 2000.
The rule of infinite regress is only one reason to have many different versions of Hamlet. Another is the rule of chess.

I hope the title of this post hasn't misled anyone into thinking I'm writing about Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess (a play you should all read when you get a chance). Instead, I'm thinking about the ways the rules of chess are like the rules of producing any version—film or stage or personal reading—of Hamlet.

Do you all know the rules of chess? Do you all know the rules of baseball? Do you know the plot of Hamlet? Those questions pry into your knowledge on an abstract level.

How many of you remember game seven of the 1987 World Series? On the bleak and horrible day on which that game was played—October 25, 1987—the St. Louis Cardinals suffered defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Twins. Can you recall Game Six of the 1985 World Series? It was October 26, 1985. Kansas City. A bleak and weary town. An umpire called a Kansas City player safe. As a result, some argue, the Cardinals lost the game that would have secured the championship. How many of you remember the 1987 match in Brussels between Ljubomir Ljubojevic and Garry Kasparov? How many remember the 1948 Hamlet with Lawrence Olivier? The questions in this paragraph are about specific applications of the abstractions in the previous paragraph.

All these different games have extensive similarities. There are general rules (the rules of baseball, the rules of chess, the text of Hamlet) and specific application of (or failure to apply) those rules (the 1985 World Series, the 1987 Ljubojevic / Kasparov match, the 1948 film version of Hamlet). Moreover, the specific games may or may not be remembered—and some may be best forgotten. But the abstraction of “The Game” continues and is enduringly interesting.

Twenty opening moves are possible for white in a game of chess; and black may respond with any one of twenty moves. After three or four moves, the number of possible moves increases somewhat. After eight or nine moves, the number increases enormously—but, as pieces are removed from the board or become trapped, the number rapidly decreases. The end of the game is determined, ideally, by checkmate, although other endings are possible. I cannot calculate the number of possible chess games—mathematically or otherwise—but I estimate it to be infinity minus three. The virtually-unlimited possibilities—within (and this is most vital) a rigid structure—ensures continual fascination.

When a reader, teacher, student, or director approaches the text of Hamlet, the same concept applies. Seemingly-small decisions like which text to use, how much of the plot to reveal, who to cast in a given role, and how to have that actor play that role have a cumulative effect. Moreover, each small decision has an effect on every other element of the play. In the highest levels of competitive chess, the opening ten moves may seem perfunctory. Yet those small moves are determining the tenor of the entire game. In reading Hamlet or in directing a stage or film version of the play, the decisions readers and directors make about each character, though similarly incremental, determine the nature of every other character in the play.

For example, here are three of the characters in the play and some of the ways in which incremental changes to the characters around them change our understanding of each one's own character:
Ophelia. The more overbearing her father is, the stronger we must imagine her to be if she rebels against him in any way. Further, her eventual madness may be predicated on harsh treatment by her father if he is overbearing. Or her madness may be motivated by her guilt at her complicity or her guilt at not doing all her father asks. Or it may be motivated by genuine concern for her father.

Hamlet. The more evil Polonius is, the less we blame him for Polonius’ death. Indeed, the more terrible Poloinius is, the more we may view his death as deserved. But if Polonius is more of a comic figure, it makes Hamlet’s action more misguided.

Claudius. The more power-hungry Polonius is, the more he may influence the King. The more the King is influenced, the weaker he is. And the weaker he is, the sneakier we imagine the murder to be. Of course, the weaker Claudius is, the weaker Hamlet himself must be not to act against such a weakling. Directors must achieve a delicate balance in this and other interpretative decisions.
That's just an opening gambit—call it the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Gambit, if you like—on an important issue. This idea has extensive implications for staging, reading, and watching productions of Hamlet. I'm currently interested in portrayals of Shakespeare in Vietnam. Some would argue that these incremental changes eventually become large enough that Hamlet is no longer what is being portrayed. Instead (they argue), the Shakespeare has been lost. I disagree, preferring to see the interest and significance in the ways different cultures make sense out of characters, speeches, and plots that westerners have also made sense out of—in different ways.

I'll return to this issue later. Re-reading Laura Bonannan's "Shakespeare in the Bush"—a popular article on relating the plot of Hamlet to a homestead of the Tiv people in Nigeria—has given me a great deal of food for thought (beginning with the pejorative-sounding title of the article). The article is extremely interesting—although it strikes me as somewhat contrived and somewhat naïve. But you'll hear more on that later!

Note: The Olivier Hamlet is used as an example here because I've had this image of the back of Hamlet's head for a year now and haven't done a thing with it! Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest