Shakespeare That Sucketh Not!

July 25, 2011 at 12:05 am (As You Like It, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

I am lucky to live in the Washington DC area, where the Bard is alive and well onstage, especially in the summer. Tonight the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice wrapped up. In a few weeks, their Free for All version of Julius Caesar takes the stage. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has extended their carnival-themed outdoor version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they are also doing The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged. Jamie who blogs at Maryland Shakespeare has posted about the Empty Chair Theatre’s version of Titus Andronicus which sounds pretty cool. And entering the realm of the very artsy, there are several Shakespeare-inspired shows at the Capital Fringe Festival:

Hamlet Reframed: While Hamlet is off monologuing, what about the rest of Elsinore? Rather than showing Hamlet’s inner thoughts and private actions, this cropping of Shakespeare’s text focuses on how the king and queen deal with a mad and murderous prince.

King Lear: Drunken biker gang leader, King Lear, rashly banishes his thankless youngest daughter, igniting a violent turf war. As Lear rages, his conniving older daughters vie for control of the gang. It does not go well.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Purple Haze? The Lost Rock Sonnets of William Shakespeare: They’ve been broken up for nearly 500 years, but William Shakespeare is getting the band back together and releasing the most ambitious concept album since Hamlet, proving that high culture once was pop culture, and shall be again!

The Shrewing of the Tamed: Are women as funny as men? This feminist adaptation of “Taming of the Shrew” explores the politics of power, performance, sex, and laughter by taking Shakespeare’s original text and turning it on its head.

What, Lamb! What, Ladybird: Think you know Juliet? Think again. Shakespeare’s brilliant heroine is too often sidelined by the masculine world she inhabits, but this one-woman show, performed by Charlene V. Smith, puts Juliet center stage.

Whew! All this Shakespeare everywhere I look, and I hadn’t been able to see any of it. Then, the Maryland Shakespeare Festival was supposed to come to my town, Gaithersburg for a couple free performances of As You Like It. I thought, yay me! I finally get to go to a show. But guess what? Washington tends to get a little warm in July (tourists drop like flies here!). And Friday and Saturday our heat index was up in the 120s, so they cancelled the shows. I guess they did not want to have to wrestle in the damp heat!

Luckily for me, I was able to go to the rescheduled show tonight. What fun! As You Like It is such a funny show, and Maryland Shakespeare Festival does a great job of bringing the lightheartedness to the forefront of this production. They start with their “Riotous Youth” group giving an animated pre-show show explaining the plot of the play to kids (and grown-ups) in attendance. It helps set the stage perfectly.

This group did As You Like It this past spring as a Bare Bard (raw, unrehearsed) production and they have tightened it up (and rehearsed a few times!) to create the freebie show that is traveling around Maryland parks this summer. I’ve seen one of their Bare Bard’s (The Merchant of Venice) and I went to their summer freebie last year, Romeo and Juliet. They are an energetic company, exploring the original staging practices of Shakespeare’s time, while also making the plays fun and accessible to modern audiences. We are lucky to have them here.

With a minimal set and simple costumes, the actors were all wonderful comedians, from the early action with the wrestling match, the banishments to the magical forest of Arden, the great lines that everyone knows (“All the world’s a stage…”) to the craziness around Rosalind (disguised as the boy Ganymede) and her subtle wooing of Orlando, while fighting off the advances of Phoebe, and orchestrating the final happy ending with the four weddings (and no funeral!). All quite fun and fast-paced, with Touchstone the clown adding to the levity.

The title for my post comes from the T-shirt of one of the stage crew tonight. Truly, Maryland Shakespeare Festival is Shakespeare that Sucketh Not! And the price is right for this show ($0). The summer tour winds up next weekend with shows in Frederick and Denton. Try to catch it!

Celia (Erin Branigan), farthest left, and Rosalind (Teresa Spencer) watch while Orlando (Ian Sullivan) is on Wrestler’s (John Kelso) back during their wrestling match. Photo: Bill Green for the Frederick News Post

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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A Luminous Winter’s Tale

December 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm (Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Winter's Tale) (, , )

I had a Saturday afternoon free and noticed that The Winter’s Tale was being performed nearby, so I jumped at the chance to see another Shakespeare play. I had never heard of Lumina Studio Theatre, but was impressed with their work. The enormous cast (over 50 people!) in this play was almost entirely children. And they have two separate casts performing this show over two weekends! That’s a lot of kids interested in playing Shakespeare! From its mission statement:

Lumina Studio Theatre’s mission is to provide unique opportunities for young and adult actors of all levels of experience to perform Shakespeare, other plays of the classical repertory theatre, and modern plays that focus on the beauty of language.

The setting for the telling of the tale is an abandoned theater during the blitz in London during WWII. There are air raid sirens at the start and then the people taking cover in the theater are entertained with the story.

It was a fun performance, lots of energy and excitement, beautiful costumes, very nice music, and lots of cute kids doing a great job. There were a couple little glitches. One boy fainted onstage and amazingly the other actors didn’t miss a beat, the speakers kept delivering lines, and the couple of adults on-stage carried him off quietly. I thought it was part of the play! It was only at intermission that I heard people in the audience asking if he was alright (he was).

It was fun. I may have been one of the few people in the audience not related to one of the actors, but the 150-seat theater was full for this show. Lumina Studio Theatre performs at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland outside Washington, DC. If you are in the area, you might try to catch a performance. The show continues through December 12.

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An About Face

November 26, 2010 at 3:21 pm (Film Adaptations, Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , )

I’ve changed my mind. I like Love’s Labour’s Lost now. It’s been months since I posted about it, but I really disliked this play before. I found it so pretentious and annoying, all the characters seemed smarmy, overly-wordy and self-important. Blech.

It’s all changed now. I watched Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost from Shakespeare’s Globe and all is well. I couldn’t be more surprised at how this video of a stage production at London’s Globe Theatre could change my perspective on this play. This passage from the notes that accompany the DVD explain the difference:

During the play, Shakespeare makes fun of pedantry and pompousness, of wordiness and worthiness and of academic posturing in general. Any literary dons that recognise none of themselves in Love’s Labour’s Lost are at best unsporting and at worst obtuse. But anyone new to Shakespeare, perhaps worried about being confused or intimidated by the language, would probably not be grateful for the play’s obscure allusions, knotted wordplay and long passages in Latin. A good production, then, must ensure that such qualities are presented as the butt of the joke, rather than crucial pieces of plot. This, thankfully, is the approach taken by Dominic Dromgoole’s production, and it plays no small part in the production’s success.

All I can say is three cheers for Dominic Dromgoole! Instead of getting weighed down by the wordy wit and wordplay I found myself just enjoying the farce of the situations and the wonderful silliness of the characters.

The cast of zany characters in this play really shines. Costard (played by Fergal McElherron) is over-the-top fun throughout the play. This take on Costard whispers to me of Michael Keaton’s bizarre portrayal of Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. But where Keaton’s Dogberry seemed to me distractingly weird, McElherron’s Costard seems on the money. I get a big kick out of Costard’s scene about remuneration (the money he takes from Don Armado for delivering a love letter to Jacquenetta). I had seen the scene analyzed in Playing Shakespeare, where it was an example of the Elizabethan love for words and language. Great fun!

Dull (played by Andrew Vincent) is sincerely (to great comic effect) dull. Don Armado (Paul Ready) is hilariously goofy. Boyet (Tom Stuart) is a nosy sycophant, often dismissed by the princess with an eye roll. And I love the princess here (portrayed by Michelle Terry)–her strong personality shining through in every scene.

What’s lost in this production? The pedantry. And good riddance! The silly banter between the boys making their oath to study and give up food, sleep and women for three years is hilarious! The ridiculous conversations between Holofernes and Nathaniel are dealt with lightly — they are a minor part of the show and there is no labour lost worrying about what the heck they are talking about.

Unfortunately, I think some of the banter between Berowne and Rosaline is also lost here. I don’t see much chemistry between the two in this production. I like Trystan Gravelle’s Berowne, but I find Thomasin Rand a bit mechanical in her delivery of Rosaline’s lines, and the interchanges lose their sizzle.

Speaking of mechanical, the play within the play here, The Nine Worthies, is really funny. The set up is very like the set up for the mechanicals’ production of Pyramus and Thisby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (an ironic twist that the supposedly-learned Halofernes, Nathaniel and Armado are among the “rustics” made fun of here). As with P&T, there is much heckling of the players from the royal audience. It’s very funny and ends in total chaos here, with wrestling and a food fight.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production. It’s great entertainment, the staging is fun and imaginative, the set is simple, but lovely, the costumes are luscious, the music beautiful. If you’re looking for a good video representation of Love’s Labour’s Lost, look no further. It’s not on Netflix yet, but is available on Amazon and eBay. Enjoy!

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Bare Bard

October 10, 2010 at 7:04 pm (Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Merchant of Venice) (, , , , , )

I just saw The Merchant of Venice in rare form — bare naked. No, the actors were clothed. Here’s a description from the Maryland Shakespeare Festival website:

As always in Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s signature Bare Bard experiments, The Merchant of Venice is an exercise in impromptu Shakespeare. The cast of actors will arrive in Frederick on Friday evening with their lines already memorized, and by Saturday evening, they will perform the full production before an audience—with stunning emotional realism, audience interaction, live music, choreographed dances, and unbeatable storytelling.

Let me explain: the actors met on Friday evening, had dinner, talked about the play, worked through some things on Saturday and then with no rehearsals, performed it for the first time on Saturday evening, in front of a live audience. They performed it once more on Sunday afternoon. And then the actors stayed for a bit afterward to discuss the play and answer questions. And now it’s done. History.

Bravo.

Seriously, this was a pretty incredible experience. It is experimental theater, more in tune with the ways of Elizabethan theater, where plays were produced fast and furiously with little rehearsal and not much in the way of props or staging. Did I say props? Ummm, the only props I can remember in the entire production were the scales and knife that Shylock carried into the courtroom preparing to take his pound of flesh from Antonio. Oh, and the three boxes that Portia’s suitors must choose from to win her hand. Bare Bard, indeed!

Did I mention Shylock? It was very interesting to see this so soon after watching the Playing Shakespeare episode devoted entirely to this character. Shylock was incredible here — played by British actor Stephen Lorne Williams, a Broadway veteran (and currently playing at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia which I posted about a few months ago). I found his Shylock filled with psychological angst from bearing a lifetime of racism.

In the discussion after the play, people talked about anti-Semitism in the play, whether this reflected on Shakespeare himself, the times, or whether we cannot know. I have not re-read the play yet, but my feeling from this production was that Shylock’s pretty much psychotic insistence on having his pound of flesh rather than twice the payment he was due, was due to a lifetime of maltreatment and disrespect. He thought he had a moment of power after a lifetime of powerlessness. Even that backfired on him. Amazing.

And then, of course, the play is a comedy, and the players made the most of many of the comic elements. I especially enjoyed the silliness regarding the errant rings at the end. And there was a great moment where Lorenzo sang to Jessica one of the Beatles’ love songs (I think it was “And I Love Her”). Very funny.

Was it perfect? No, I mean how could it be when there have been no rehearsals. There were some requests for lines, but they were rare, considering. And I didn’t count them as flubs… there were really none. Shylock was definitely the high point of this production, but a lesser character caught my attention, too: Shylock’s servant, Launcelot Gobbo. His internal back and forth between conscience and the fiend… it was both funny and extremely insightful — the perfect role of the jester. I loved it.

If you find yourself near Frederick, Maryland, I recommend that you check out the Maryland Shakespeare Festival. I posted about these folks during the summer outdoor freebie Shakespeare season. They are playing several Bare Bard experiments this season and it is an amazing way to experience Shakespeare. As well as raw and bare, it is also up close and personal: they play in the parish hall at an Episcopal Church. There is not even a stage. The actors were literally a couple feet away from me. Amazing!

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I Get No Kick From Champagne

August 16, 2010 at 8:56 pm (Film Adaptations, Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I get no kick from Champagne, but I get a big ol’ kick out of Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 version of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It’s set in 1939 France. World War II is looming and we’re updated several times during the film with faux newsreel footage. But everyone is quite stylish and elegant in Navarre. And the music is good. The music is very, very good with all those great Depression-era show tunes.

Okay. Let’s be honest. The BBC took Shakespeare’s play at face value and delivered a true-to-the-text (and therefore very wordy) version. In stark contrast, Branagh throws caution (and maybe common sense) to the wind and delivers a trippy, giddy, easy-on-the-eye dreamscape of a musical. This is Shakespeare Lite. Emphasis on Lite.

I didn’t analyze how much of the text is missing, but it’s significant — like all the boring parts! Really, you don’t get any sense at all of the wordplay and self-conscious erudition that permeates the original. It’s nearly pedantless! This is all fun and games. Heavy on the wooing, lite on the wit.

Does it work? I find this film much easier to watch and more entertaining than the BBC version. Is it all good? I wouldn’t go that far. I actually hate Alicia Silverstone as the princess. She is just awful and barely delivers her lines. She’s the low point for me. And, well, I watch a lot of Scooby at my house, so it’s hard for me to see Matthew Lillard (who plays Longaville) and think of anything but Shaggy. Yet, it sorta works in this movie. Longaville = Shaggy. Go figure.

What’s good here? I love Nathan Lane’s Costard. And by far the trippiest character is Timothy Spall’s amazingly bizarre Don Armado. Wow, is all I can say there. Fun to watch. Weird, though.

Really weird. I think my favorite scene is Don Armado singing Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out of You” and sneezing cocaine all over another guy’s face, followed immediately by the princess and her ladies goofily waking up with their teddy bears in their tent and then going for a synchronized Esther Williams-style swim while singing Irving Berlin’s “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” from Top Hat with Fred Astaire.

Yeah. I have to say I really don’t get this play (I mean Shakespeare’s version). I’m going to read it again before I post about it. But whatever is in Love’s Labour’s Lost is surely lost in this film version. The play is about wordplay and satire; that is completely absent from this film. Yet, the film is entertaining — for sheer cheesy weirdness, really, more than great song and dance.

Okay, enough of the hallucination. I’m going to get back to the text. I will report back. Hopefully, I’ll find it more readable on the second pass. Wish me luck!

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To Wit, To Woo

August 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm (Film Adaptations, Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

Oh, I’m tired. I’m witless from witty banter. I just finished reading Love’s Labour’s Lost and I’ve watched the 1984 Elijah Moshinsky version for the BBC Shakespeare series. I’ve watched it twice now. As I say, I am tired and witless from all the witty banter.

I had never read this play or seen it performed, so this was all new. It’s an acquired taste. I was lost the first time I watched the BBC version. The play is all about wit and puns and there’s very little action; it is difficult to keep up with the dialogue and make sense of it on casual viewing.

Then I read the play; I watched it again. Okay. I get it now. It’s very thick satire. Extremely thick, non-stop mockery of people who have nothing better to do than to be impressed with their own wit. So I say: To Wit, To Woo. That is, I think, Shakespeare’s pun on the lyrics in the final song representing the owl’s cry, “tu-whit, tu-who!”

The whole play is about wit and wooing. Or maybe, as the introduction in my text says, “Perhaps the men have been too witty to be able to woo effectively.” The banter and wordplay is just all-around too much for me. But I’m critiquing the content of the play itself, and that’s hard not to do when it’s the basis for the film.

I read that this is Shakespeare’s most intellectual play, and so one that is less accessible to modern audiences. And in fact, it probably was not originally produced for the general public, but for a learned audience who would get the thick allusions and wordplay. It’s not easy.

That said, I think that the BBC version does a good job of making it at least a bit accessible (and I’ve read that this play can also be quite enjoyable performed live… even when much of the witty banter goes right by you). There is really not a serious moment until the very end and the film keeps moving along briskly (not belaboring the wordplay at all).

The BBC setting reminds me of a Fragonard painting… a frothy 18th century French fantasia. The actors are well-suited to their roles. I especially like David Warner’s version of the endearingly goofy Don Adriano de Armado. I also enjoy the Beatrice/Benedick-esque sparring between Rosaline (Jenny Agutter) and Berowne (Mike Gwilym). But unlike Beatrice and Benedick, these characters are never developed enough in the play to really care about them and the sparring is all just verbal play — there’s little emotion behind it.

That’s a critique of the play again, not the BBC production. I cannot say I like this play much. It’s smarmy and pedantic. I feel like a pedant just saying that. When I start getting the jokes I feel like Miss Smartypants. The whole thing is making fun of smarmy pedants, but you have to be one to get the joke. And so the joke’s on you. Sneaky guy, that Shakespeare.

I appreciate that this BBC version is a fun take on Shakespeare. I can’t say I recommend this for people who are not familiar with the play. I don’t think most people will enjoy it or get much out of it on casual viewing.

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Dead Poets

July 9, 2010 at 11:48 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

Oh my goodness. Can this movie really be old enough to drink? Where does the time go? I guess it’s been 21 years since I saw Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poets Society, because I watched it in a theater. Geez.

Anyway, I got to thinking about it after seeing Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing where Robert Sean Leonard plays the young lover Claudio. In DPS, Leonard plays the pivotal role of Neil Perry, the wannabe high school thespian who lands the part of Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This film is so wonderful. It won an Oscar for Best Writing and was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. I love Robin Williams in this film. He is just perfect for the role — the inspiring teacher, John Keating. Doesn’t everyone wish they’d had a teacher like that? Funny, exciting, full of life, full of wisdom, full of dreams. He brings those dreams to life for his students. Poetry is the language he wants them to speak.

And speak they do! He fires them up and gets them interested in life and love and living. You see the changes happen in the boys as they start to realize their interests, their individuality, and their potentials.

His students find an old yearbook where one of Keating’s activities is listed as the Dead Poets Society and they ask him to explain. I love his description:

The Dead Poets was dedicated to “sucking the marrow out of life.” That’s a phrase from Thoreau we would invoke at the beginning of every meeting. You see, we would gather at the old Indian cave and take turns reading from Thoreau, Whitman, Shelly — the biggies — even some of our own verse. And, in the enchantment of the moment, we’d let poetry work its magic.

Of course Shakespeare is one of the dead poets venerated in this film. Neil takes the leap he knows his overbearing father won’t approve of and lands the role of Puck in A Midsummer Nights Dream. He is so excited! He’s doing something he really wants to do!

Neil’s performance is poignant. He sees his father in the audience and speaks Puck’s last lines directly to his dad. He’s begging his father to understand and to forgive him:

If we shadows have offended, 
Think but this, and all is mended, 
That you have but slumber’d here 
While these visions did appear. 
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Keating congratulates him as he leaves the theater, “Neil. Neil. You have the gift. What a performance. You left even me speechless. You have to stay with…” and then he’s cut off by Neil’s father, who even after seeing his son perform is seething with anger over his disobedience.

Ah, life. I love this film. And I love the way it ends… the final scene is really touching. O Captain! My Captain!

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Shakespeare In-The-Ruins

July 5, 2010 at 12:37 am (Live Performances, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

The ghosts of Southern belles are dancing in my imagination right now. I saw Much Ado About Nothing performed in the ruins of an antebellum finishing school today. It was the coolest thing! Well, it wasn’t cool. It was nearly 100 degrees and muggy when the play started. But it was really cool!

 
 

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performs outdoors, in the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, Maryland (not far from Baltimore). I found this information about the ruins:

Situated on a hilltop overlooking the Patapsco River Valley in Historic Ellicott City, the Patapsco Female Institute was founded in 1837 and operated for more than 50 years as an elegant finishing school for young women. The stabilized ruins of the Greek Revival structure are open for tours, and serve as a beautiful setting for special events including Victorian teas and a summer open air theatre.

So, there were hoop skirts here. Young Southern belles during the Civil War. I bet they had dances like Scarlett O’Hara went to in Gone with the Wind. 

Anyway, what a cool place to see a play! Huge trees surround the ruins. For the 4th of July, they started the play at 5 PM so we would have plenty of time to get out to see fireworks afterward. The actors also read the entire Declaration of Independence before the performance. That was kind of amazing to hear! 

The seating is very casual and family friendly (kids get free admission to all performances). Some sat on blankets, others brought camp chairs. CSC provides 200 folding chairs, so I took one of those. We all moved around quite a lot to get out of the sun for the first 45 minutes or so. Once the shade from the trees kicked in, everything was much more pleasant. It would be really lovely in the evening. 

The CSC provides pre-performance entertainment (jugglers, activities), but I arrived at showtime, so missed out on that. You could make quite a day of the outing. Because it was a family-oriented performance, one of the actors began by taking the kids (and any interested grown-ups) aside to explain the plot of the play (with photos) so they’d be able to follow along better. I thought that was really nice. 

They did a great job with Much Ado About Nothing. The stage is a series of platforms and ramps built into the L-shaped side of the ruins. So, the actors perform there as well as using the many doors and windows of the ruins. It gives them a lot of flexibility and they use the space well. 

Lesley Malin as Beatrice in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Photo by Teresa Castracane

This production is set during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The acting is terrific! I enjoyed everyone. Beatrice has a lot of spunk and presence. You could see her cracking her gum in a Rosie the Riveter job. And she has that Big Band era chic… she looks great with her hair nets and stylish outfits. 

Katie Molinaro as Hero, Steven Hoochuk in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Photo by Teresa Castracane

One thing I noticed in this production that was not evident in video versions or from reading the text — Margaret during and after Hero’s jilting at the altar. Wow. So, it’s Margaret at the window with Borachio (they staged the window scene quietly here). Then the next day, Claudio humiliates Hero at the altar and accuses her of being a whore. So, all the while, Ms. Margaret, Hero’s trusted servant… is doing what? Why wouldn’t she set things straight at the wedding (blushingly waving, ummm, ahemm, excuse me, can I say something?). I don’t remember seeing her at all during the post-jilting in the film versions. 

Well, here, I watched her on the stage. It was interesting. Everyone else ran to Hero’s aid when she fainted. Margaret stood aside, by herself, nervously playing with a bouquet and quietly contemplating her navel. I kept looking at her. Why wouldn’t she speak up? But then it worked for me. Here she is, a servant. The jilting is huge: Big Drama involving the daughter of the governor and all these important people. I could see then… it would be very difficult for Margaret to own up to the truth here (although I still think she could have done it later, in private). But here, the big scene, how strange it would be for a servant to pipe up with the news that Claudio and Don Pedro were mistaken and that it was she having sex with Borachio at her mistress’s window while he called her Hero. How would she explain that here? So then, I understood Margaret a bit more. 

Only one thing bothered me during the whole show. You may have noticed that I love Balthasar’s song, as I’ve started many of my posts about Much Ado by quoting it. So, I was looking forward to hearing it performed. Guess what? Balthasar sang it in Spanish in this production! Oh, darn. 

It was really fun to watch this play, it’s so entertaining… really a pleasant outing. If you’re in the area, I recommend catching a show here at the ruins. Hamlet is running in repertory this summer with Much Ado. It’s a lovely venue. 

And I got home in plenty of time to see fireworks. Happy 4th of July! 

James Jager as Claudio, Michael Sullivan as Benedick, Theo Hadjimichael as Don Pedro in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Photo by Teresa Castracane

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Fairy Funny

July 4, 2010 at 12:39 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, My College Papers, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , )

A couple weeks ago, my drive down into the mountains of Virginia got me thinking about college. I went to school a few hours deeper into those beautiful hills, at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Anyway, then I realized I forgot to post about my college papers. Yep, I wrote one on A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in November 1986. Yawn. Why did I keep these papers? Why would I ever want to read them again? It’s a mystery. Anyhow, this one is entitled: “The Fairies’ Contribution to the Humor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Yawn.

How do professors psyche themselves into reading this stuff over and over, year after year? How? It’s a mystery. Yawn. This paper is bleeding with red ink, but the guy should have been an MD… his handwriting is so bad I can’t make out what most of his notes say. I see “develop” and “expand” in a couple places; not sure what good comments like that do on a paper that would never be further discussed or revised. Anyway.

Actually, I kind of enjoyed reading the paper because it made me think about the difference between what I’m doing with this blog and what I did in school. In school, I’m sure I just did the minimum required. This paper is only 4.5 pages long, which was probably the minimum requirement (I bet there was a required word count and since this was typed on a typewriter… I bet I actually counted the words).

Also, I wonder about the whole concept of undergrad theme papers. Is it a useful way of teaching? Again, because I never went back and revisited the themes/rewrote the paper/had any useful conversation or input about it, I’m not sure what I got out of it. I guess just the exercise of coming up with something to put on paper is useful in itself. I guess.

On the other hand, I’m having a lot of fun with this blog and think I’m learning a lot. I can write about anything I want and not worry that every statement is backed up with “impressive” evidence that will get me a grade. And also, here I find I have more questions than answers. I’m just putting my thoughts out there and not always drawing conclusions. (I’d love to get more comments about my posts… that would be fun!)

Also, I like writing on the blog because it’s my party and I can do what I want. I can say things I’d never put in a school paper. I don’t have to mind my p’s and q’s so much… I can use slang and sentence frags when I feel more conversational and casual — sometimes it’s less cumbersome to get my meaning across without worrying about the presence and placement of all the parts of speech. I can neglect to ital titles, because I feel like it. I can do what I feel like because no one is grading me! This is more fun. I can spend as much time as I feel like on each play… no deadlines! And maybe (especially if you comment!) I get more out of it than I did from my college papers.

Alrighty. Let’s see. Is there anything insightful in this paper? I talk a bit about the popularity of nonhuman beings in folklore. How people enjoy fairy tales about sprites possessing both human foibles and magical powers. And how this combination of traits is especially amusing because it allows for more imaginative stories — not limited to the predictability of the human world.

For all their humanlike feelings, the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream have resources for dealing with them that set them firmly apart from mortals. This endears them further to the audience, because the fairies deal with problems we can relate to, but they deal in ways that humans can only fantasize about. Yet for all their powers, they mess things up pretty well. There’s a lot of humor in that.

I compare and contrast the whimsical magic of the fairyworld to the slapstick shenanigans of the mechanicals. I also contrast the mystical, mischievous fairyworld here to the scary underworld of evil spirits, witches and scary magic in folklore. We have love juice here, not death spells. We have the mischievous, but not malicious, Puck.

I go into some detail about Puck — how this character was well-known to Shakespeare’s audience. Puck was the Elizabethan euphemism for today’s gremlins — the causers of all those little, inexplicable things that occur when no one is looking. Shakespeare recounts Puck’s exploits so that the audience is reminded of who he is. He’s a very funny character to include in the play because of his universality: everyone can relate to him because everyone has had a brush with Puck (I used the word “universalism” here, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t talking about religion!).

I talk a bit about the poetic language of the fairies. How their pretty, ethereal language creates their mystique. And I compare it to the heavy-handedness of the mechanicals’ language. Let’s see, I go into the humor of Oberon’s prank, and the farce of Titania’s doting on Bottom. And then I talk about the humor stemming from dramatic irony… because the audience sees the fairies, but the Athenians don’t. We know all the silliness among the lovers stems from the love juice, but they are unconscious of the cause.

I wind it up by giving the fairies credit for putting things to right, one hilarious step at a time, for leaving everyone feeling like it was all a strange dream, and for making this one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining plays. B+

© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Hey Nonny, Nonny

July 1, 2010 at 12:04 am (Analysis and Discussion, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , )

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.
II.3.62-69

I’m wrapping things up here with Much Ado About Nothing. I just have a few miscellaneous thoughts.

Hero
I’ll just say it straight out: I don’t like her. She’s no hero in my book. She’s dumb. She’s mean-spirited. She’s two-faced. In her defense, she’s mightily wronged by Claudio in this play. Also, I suppose to her credit, she’s obedient to her father. It doesn’t make me like her.

Let’s start with dumb. Via hearsay (her uncle’s servant’s misnoting of an overheard conversation), Leonato tells Hero to expect Don Pedro to propose to her at the masked dance (and to say yes to Pedro, who is a good catch). I assume when she is proposed to at the dance, that she assumes it’s Pedro (it is). But Pedro is wooing her for Claudio (why?). And then when things get ironed out with (dumb) Claudio, she is okay with all of it and apparently lovey-dovey with Claudio. Is she indifferent about who she marries? Does she love either Pedro or Claudio? Unclear, but she doesn’t appear to have a lot of smarts (or personality).

Okay, and mean-spirited. Hero is in on Pedro’s plot to bluff the sparring B&B and transform them into lovebirds. She leads the charge on Beatrice. Yet while baiting the hook here (with Beatrice eavesdropping), she is a bit overly harsh.

But Nature never framed a woman’s heart
Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice;
Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak: she cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared.
III.1.49-56

Really now? Hero goes on and on slandering Beatrice while she knows Beatrice is in the bushes hearing every word. What a sweet cousin! Of course, she’s doing it all under the guise of jest, as a big prank to get Beatrice to think Benedick is in love with her. It’s all done in good fun, but… not very nice!

Let’s go on to two-faced. When Hero is dressing for her wedding, she gossips to Margaret about her cousin Beatrice. She says:

HERO
No, pray thee, good Meg, I’ll wear this.

MARGARET
By my troth, ‘s not so good; and I warrant your
cousin will say so.

HERO
My cousin’s a fool, and thou art another: I’ll wear
none but this.
III.4.7-11

Whew! Bridezilla! All this while Beatrice never breathes a critical word about Hero during the whole play, but stands by her steadfastly through the worst. Beatrice is so true to Hero that she asks Benedick to kill Claudio to avenge the slander against her! Hero doesn’t deserve Beatrice’s fierce loyalty.

Claudio
I think the modern Shakespeare Retold version portrays this couple correctly as they bond over mispronouncing “meteorological.” Claudio is also dumb. He’s mean-spirited. He’s two-faced.

The dumb part… I don’t know where to begin. Why does he allow Don Pedro to woo Hero for him? Maybe because he’s dumb and shy and naive? Or maybe because he has no choice, since Pedro is a prince. Why does he believe Don John’s lies about Pedro wooing for himself? Maybe because John is a convincing liar. Or maybe Claudio is just dumb. The window scene… Claudio gullible? Or John just so masterfully deceiving? I can go on and on. Dumb just seems a plausible explanation for Claudio’s behavior throughout the play.

Mean and two-faced: the wedding scene. That is an incredibly mean deception on Claudio’s part. He goes to the wedding solely to humiliate Hero in public. He believes he saw her with another man at her bedroom window the previous night, yet he shows up to the wedding ceremony calmly, as if nothing is awry. And then he lets loose a torrent of hateful stuff at Hero. This really goes beyond mean; he’s pathological.

After he jilts Hero at the altar, Claudio is disrespectful to the old men Leonato and Antonio, who are upset that he slandered Hero. When the old brothers leave in a huff and Benedick approaches, Claudio says:

We had liked to have had our two noses snapped off with two old men without teeth.
V.1.115-116

I hate this quote. It’s so unfeeling. At this point, Claudio believes Hero is dead, and to say this of her elderly father and uncle is just cold.

And as Hero seems indifferent early on about marrying Pedro or Claudio, at the end, Claudio parallels her indifference, by happily agreeing to Leonato’s odd suggestion that he marry his niece, sight unseen. Sure! No problem! What’s love got to do with it? (Oddly, at this point, I wonder if he is expecting to marry Beatrice, since she is Leonato’s niece.) And when Claudio lifts the mask to discover it’s his Hero, woohoo! A match made in heaven.

The Nature of Love
So, to summarize Claudio and Beatrice’s courting: Claudio comes back from war and Hero is a sight for his sore eyes. He falls immediately in love with her. Her feelings are unknown. Her father prepares her to expect a proposal from Don Pedro. She is an obedient daughter, so it’s assumed she’ll accept. Except the proposal comes from Claudio via Pedro’s mouth (odd situation). So is she accepting Claudio or Pedro? Does she know?

Not clear, but it’s Claudio that meets her at the altar. And Claudio comes to the altar planning to jilt her publicly (which he does, thinking she’s a whore). Her family pretends she’s dead hoping that Claudio will show remorse. He doesn’t. The truth comes out of Hero’s innocence and Claudio now shows remorse. Since Hero is dead, Claudio agrees enthusiastically to marry Leonato’s niece, who he’s never met. Then it turns out to be Hero and so he marries his first choice after all.

Umm, does anyone see this marriage as having a stable future?

Now, let’s talk about B&B. They have a history. We’re not totally clear about the nature of their earlier relationship and how it ended, but it ended badly and Beatrice shows the scars. She says:

DON PEDRO
Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of
Signior Benedick.

BEATRICE
Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave
him use for it, a double heart for his single one:
marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

DON PEDRO
You have put him down, lady, you have put him down.

BEATRICE
So I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I
should prove the mother of fools.
II.1.261-270

There is some sadness, some bitterness in Beatrice early on in the play, and yet you can see clearly the sparks flying between the two whenever they are near each other. The feelings are already there, just suppressed. They both protest too much, swearing up and down that they will never marry anyone, least of all each other. 

It does not take much for the merry pranksters to plant the seeds that grow into full-blown love for both B&B. It is a clever love-trap that Pedro comes up with. B&B are helpless to resist.

So, they are both starry-eyed, but is that true, lasting love? Then after Hero’s jilting, Benedick checks in with Beatrice and offers to do anything to help with her family’s situation. Beatrice is very clear: “Kill Claudio.” It’s a shocking statement. Certainly, Benedick is shocked! But he sticks around long enough to hear why Beatrice feels so strongly that this is the only answer to the wrong done to her cousin.

Benedick comes around to her reasoning and agrees to challenge Claudio. And when he goes to talk to Claudio, he is all business — there is none of the playful and witty repartee of the Benedick we’ve seen prior to this. He is deadly, bluntly serious with Claudio. There is no doubt he’s taken Beatrice’s feelings to heart. And then (much to his relief) Benedick is let off the hook when Hero’s reputation is cleared. 

So, in contrast to Claudio and Hero who hardly know each other and seem indifferent to who they pair with, B&B have a longterm relationship (even if it has been a “merry war” of words much of the time), they enjoy each other’s company, others see them as a good match, their relationship stands the test of loyalty in crisis, and they end the play clearly joyously in love with each other. Hey nonny, nonny!

Please let me know your comments about Much Ado About Nothing! I think this is my last post on the play, unless a reader brings up something new for me to think and post about. Next on my reading list is Love’s Labour’s Lost. Read it with me!

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