Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Great River Shakespeare Festival: Go. Just Go.

Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The Mery Wives of Windsor. The Great River Shakespeare Festival. 26 June to 3 August 2014.

Yesterday, I managed to make a road trip to Winona, Minnesota (from the Twin Cities, a drive of just over two hours) to see two plays at The Great River Shakespeare Festival. And I regret nothing.

Every year, The Great River Shakespeare Festival gives the region professional, astounding, life-altering Shakespeare productions of the very highest quality, always rivaling and often superseding the offerings of the nearby metropolitan areas. In short, it is theatre that you should not miss.

Only a few days remain in the season, and they're very close to beating their all-time record for ticket sales. Drop everything and head to one of the shows. If you've never been, they're offering tickets at two for the of one. If you've been before and are bringing a friend who has never been, the same offer applies.

I just have time to make a few notes about the most amazing parts of the productions I saw. These are the points that go above and beyond the baseline of great acting, interesting direction, careful attention to the text, and clear and moving storytelling. These are the transcendent moments The Great River Shakespeare Festival provided.


I've seen whole handfuls of Hamlets, and I'm always interested in the directors' choices—but I'm not usually surprised by them. In this production, I was delightedly surprised on at least three occasions.

When Hamlet and Horatio have their first exchange, it's generally light, with his "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" delivered very flippantly. Horatio responds much more seriously, breaking through Hamlet's fa├žade of humor with the line "My lord, I came to see your father's funeral." At that point, Hamlet breaks down completely crying on Horatio's shoulder. It was surprising and very effective. We got the sense that there are greater depths to Hamlet's character that only Horatio can unlock. Hamlet staggered on to try to return to a light level with his crack about the funeral baked meats, but now the joke was covering up the pain rather than just a flippant remark.

When the Player King (played to perfection by Jonathan Gillard Daly) delivers his long speech on Hecuba, he paused briefly but significantly after the lines "for, lo! his sword, / Which was declining on the milky head / Of reverend Priam, seem'd i' the air to stick." He glanced ever-so-slightly toward Hamlet, and we got a sense that this was part of Hamlet's problem—that his plan for vengeance is stuck at this point. Again, there was some depth there, and a sense that the Player King knew more than we might expect him to.

When Hamlet comes across Claudius at prayer, he picks up Claudius' own sword as he contemplates dispatching him then and there. Later, he exits with the sword. After Claudius concludes with "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: / Words without thoughts never to heaven go," he notices the missing sword and looks about for it perplexedly. I don't know whether this was the director's intention or not, but I suddenly wondered whether a biblical allusion was at work. The story of Saul and David in the cave has some intriguing parallels to the scene:
When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats' Rocks. And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. And the men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you.’” Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul's robe. And afterward David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord's anointed.” So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way. Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage. And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed.’ 11 See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it.” (1 Samuel 24:1-11)
I find the possibilities there very interesting. David doesn't take Saul's life out of respect for the Lord's anointed; Hamlet doesn't take Claudius' life out of disrespect for the usurper. That moment along has given me much food for thought.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

This was a remarkable production. I can't enumerate the points that were done so brilliantly—there were just too many of them—but the best thing about the production (besides the incredible harmony of the acting pair of Doug Scholz-Carlson and Christopher Gerson) was its pacing. Unlike every other production of the play I've seen, this one deals with the material with a light, fast touch. It's perfect. The audience gets everything—it's enunciated clearly and played with dazzlingly deft blows of language—but nothing gets bogged down. As a result, the mix of humor and philosophy comes through much more powerfully.

Additionally, the Great River Shakespeare Fest, year after year, produces high-quality videos related to its productions. These are, without exception, remarkable, interesting, humorous, and serious. Witness, for example, "Kids Explain Shakespeare's Hamlet":

If you're anywhere near Winona, Minnesota—by which I mean within a roughly three hundred mile radius—it is completely worth heading to The Great River Shakespeare Festival. Go there. Go there now. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Note: Not Hamlet

Suzman, Janet. Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama. London: Oberon Books, 2012.

I read this book some time ago and set it in a pile of things to make a few notes about. It's a delightful excursion into the history of women in the theatre by a marvelous woman of the the theatre. I like Janet Suzman best not for her Cleopatra but for her direction of an Othello produced in South Africa under Apartheid (for which, q.v.).

I like this book best not for its contents (which are quite good) but for the section entitled "A Rogue Prologue:  A Heartfelt Plea for a Bit of Common Sense." In it, she takes on the authorship doubters, whom she calls "time-wasters" (14), and the film Anonymous (for which, q.v.).

She goes on at considerable length, but I'd like to give you all just a quick sample of her thoughts and her style
In 2011 a murky and far-fetched film was released —Sony-backed, shame on them wasting their money on
such a bad subject—called Anonymous, the invented story of how this poor put-upon Earl of Oxford was the teal author of the plays. No facts to back it up, just wild submissions and some quite good cinematography of the gloomy historical documentary kind. Some months before seeing it, I had been invited to a debate before it went on release, where incidentally it received universal critical trouncings. Professor Stanley Wells, the Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson, and Professor Michael Dobson of The Shakespeare Institute and the University of Birmingham were present to defend William. To traduce William were present the director of the film, Roland Emmerich (bet they couldn’t find a British director to do the hatchet job), a distant descendant of the Earl’s, and a little man from a small but perfectly misguided suburban university which gives degrees in maligning Shakespeare and whose name I have forgotten . . . .

Roughly this is how their batty film version goes: Oxford was always secretly writing plays, having written Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was about eight years old and henceforth entranced with his own prodigiousness, he continued in secret. But how was he to get these works into the playhouses without revealing his blue-blood? The Queen would have had him topped had she known. Thus Oxford, desperate for a theatrical conduit, singles out Ben Jonson, playwright, needing money for a reason I cannot now recall, and Ben is duly blackmailed and sworn to silence—a brilliant writer libeled beyond recognition.

Oxford could now feed his plays through Jonson’s bribed hands to reach the actors. However, one day a doltish and illiterate member of the acting company—justify an illiterate actor to me please—namely one William Shakespeare, finds out about the deception and so poor Ben has to pay him clandestinely, courtesy of the rich earl, to keep his mouth shut. Oh, and for the use of his nice name. Thus it is that he, dim-witted Will, got all the kudos for the huge success of these plays. We should be thankful that comical Will Kempe wasn’t chosen as the dupe in this film—a close call; consider the dull thud of The Royal Kempe Company.

Has it never occurred to this bunch of dreamers how such a daft plot, might work in a busy theatre company? Their scenario only works off torture and bribery anyway. There wouldn’t be enough money in the universe to stop all the actors in a company from blabbing till Doomsday, let alone the masses of other people involved in a theatre company; the tirers delivering head dresses, the sewing women mending torn costumes, the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers. No whispers and sniggers about such a plonking modus operandi, a deception stretching over twenty-five years? Did this doltish William of theirs never crow in his cups about his secret benefactor and his growing wealth? Did the Company never notice how illiterate Will had suddenly turned scribe, brandishing inky cue-sheets under their noses, scribbly fingers freshly stained? Did no one ever mark how rewrites—for rewrites there surely were—happened only after this William returned from a loo-break? We must assume the author earl was in the building that day skulking about in the gods ready for consultation. You think the cleaning-woman didn’t spot him as she swept up the vomit and hazelnut shells? A conspiracy, you understand, demands silence from everyone; unattainable in a theatre company, with skittering boys and prying eyes all on the loose in a building with no doors to shut on secrets. If they didn’t blab they were inhuman, and actors are all human, that’s for sure.

It becomes increasingly evident that the Oxfordian view of human nature is just a touch—well, out of touch. What do people do? They gossip. Universally, they gossip. To this day and forever, they gossip. What makes Oxfordians think human nature has changed? A mystery. When all is said and done the reason why William Shakespeare’s plays remain as vibrant as ever is because human nature hasn’t changed; they tell us stories about recognisable human beings. All of them with natures like ours, some the size of giants, others our size, all of them recognisably us in extremis. These guys have badly lost the plot. (17-21)
She continues in that vein for some time. I found it awfully refreshing to hear the voice of a woman of the theatre—not a trained Shakespeare scholar but a vibrant, life-long participant in the theatre—telling it like it is—and was.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Note: Anyone But You

Askew, Kim, and Amy Helmes. Anyone But You. Avon: Merit Press, 2014.

Careful readers of the blog will remember a post on the "Twisted Lit" series of Shakespeare books (for which, q.v.). Well, they've released another one.

Anyone But You is the Twisted Lit. answer to Romeo and Juliet, and half of it is pretty interesting. I've read the book myself and I've talked to a member of its target audience, and we agree that the Romeo and Juliet sections are less than intriguing. The better half of the novel addresses a possible backstory for the feud.

In the novel, Romeo and Juliet (Roman and Gigi to us) come from rival Italian restauranteurs. That section is pretty straightforward—with the usual over-the-top current teen drama thrown in. It's also fairly dull. The backstory involves how they came to be rivals, and it's much more interesting. There's considerable back-and-forth between two boys growing up in Chicago between the World Wars. I won't give you more than that, because that's worth reading. But you might want to sip every other chapter until the last thirty pages of the book.

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Book Note: Shakespeare in America

Shakespeare in America: An Anthlogy from the Revolution to Now. Ed. James Shapiro. New York: Library of America, 2013.

Despite the paucity of posts, I've not been entirely idle this summer. I haven't seen too many films, but I've read a fair number of books, particularly in preparation for an American literature course I'll be teaching in the spring.

[Note: When they told me I'd be teaching the course, I said, "American Authors? This is gonna be the best day of my life." But I digress.]

Shakespeare in America is an anthology of Shakespeare-related material edited by the great author and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro. There's a wealth of magnificent material here (along with some genuinely awful offerings). Reviews of film and stage productions elbow poems commenting on Shakespeare plays and the man himself. Pieces by Nathaniel Hawthorn and Herman Melville bump up against vaudeville burlesques and philosophical works.

I wish that the book provided more supplementary material—particularly for the musical pieces. There are occasional vague links to related material (e.g., a section on Orson Welles' "Voodoo" Macbeth helpfully points interested readers to the URL, but they could be more numerous and more precise (e.g. pointing readers to for a clip from the Welles' production).

All the same, this is a book to add to your library—it will provide hours of interest and enjoyment.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth

Lendler, Ian. The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth. Illus. Zack Giallongo. Colors Alisa Harris. New York: First Second, 2014.

First Second Books, who often have really interesting and unusual books in the general realm of the graphic novel, has just published an odd and brilliant book related to Macbeth.

The book, appropriate for grade school kids, high school students, and Shakespeare professors, tells the story of the animals in the zoo at Stratford-Upon-Avon and the antics they get up to at night—namely, putting on a production of Macbeth.

We get an intriguing version of the play (together with comical interaction with the audience). Macbeth, as a lion, is tempted to eat the king; Macduff, a stork and a detective, works to solve the crime. The book tells the general plot, but it addresses it with careful and thoughtful fluidly.

I'm providing two spreads to give an idea of how it does so (and to whet your appetite enough to give it a try). In the first, Macbeth gives in to temptation:

The second gives this book's version of Macbeth's conflicted conscience—and the dagger speech:

I'm fond of the book. It's quirky in ways that break the norms of the graphic novel genre, which I appreciate greatly. Give it a try!

Bonus: The book now has a trailer!  Enjoy!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Shakespeare in Pearls Before Swine

Pastis, Stephen. Because Sometimes You Just Gotta Draw A Cover With Your Left Hand: A Pearls Before Swine Collection. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2012.

I am always thrilled to find a bit of Shakespeare in the comic pages.

Stephen Pastis occasionally has a Shakespeare gag. His magnum opus on Mark Antony's big speech in Julius Caesar (for which, q.v.) is one of my favorites.

I've chanced upon two more, so I'm passing them along to you.  They're both of the "Huge and Suspicious Setup for Horrible but Brilliant Pun on a Sunday Morning" variety. The first (click to enlarge) deals with Shakespeare more directly:

The Shakespeare in the second comes in at the end—not as the pun itself, but as a Shakespeare-related afterthought. Enjoy!

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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