Faction of Fools

January 17, 2013 at 12:14 am (Live Performances, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

foflogo_hi-resIt’s not every day that you can watch live Shakespeare performed in your backyard. So, when I saw the poster at the library announcing Faction of Fools playing A Commedia Romeo and Juliet at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, I knew what I’d be doing last Friday night. The Arts Barn is not quite in my backyard, but it is pretty much walking distance from my house.

What fun! First let me describe A Faction of Fools. They perform Commedia dell’Arte — a Renaissance theatre style.  From their website:

Commedia dell’Arte, which translates as “professional theatre,” began in Italy in the early 16th Century and quickly spread throughout Europe, creating a lasting influence on Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, television sit-coms, and improv comedy. The style of Commedia is characterized by its use of masks, improvisation, physical comedy, and recognizable character types—young lovers, wily servants, greedy old men, know-it-all professors, boasting heroes, and the like. The legacy of Commedia includes the first incorporated (i.e. professional) theatre company, the first European actresses, and many of the themes and storylines still enjoyed by audiences today.

In the director’s notes, it is pointed out that Shakespeare drew on Commedia in his work. “Shakespeare knew their style, their characters, and their conventions… he borrowed liberally from their material.”

Production photo from A Commedia Romeo and Juliet. Presented at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Jan 12 — Feb 4. Left to Right: Paul Reisman, Toby Mulford, Eva Wilhelm and Drew Kopas. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

Production photo from A Commedia Romeo and Juliet. Presented at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Jan 12 — Feb 4. Left to Right: Paul Reisman, Toby Mulford, Eva Wilhelm and Drew Kopas. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

Romeo and Juliet is very much a comedy at the beginning. But comedy (in the traditional sense) ends in a wedding. In R&J the wedding comes too early, and in fact marks the play’s turn toward tragedy. The bodies start piling up as soon as the wedding is over.

The Faction of Fools’ Artistic Director, Matthew Wilson, points out:

Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized that this play is a comedy set on edge. The text is riddled with jokes and humorous excess; the characters are fantastical. Though we think of this play as ‘romantic’ or tragic,’ Shakespeare wanted his audiences to laugh. Then in the midst of laughter, the knife falls. Tragedy shows up when we least expect it, and the mournful tear is all the harsher because it has been matched with joy.

I thought this was fascinating to consider… that the audience would have been familiar with the plot formula and the standard characters and would be expecting the standard comedy structure with the play ending happily with a wedding. Instead, R&J twists that formula upside down and all hell breaks loose after the wedding. What a shock that must have been to Shakespeare’s audience! Really, what a shock, and how much more upsetting all the mishaps that lead to the awful ending.

Production photo from A Commedia Romeo and Juliet. Presented at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Jan 12 — Feb 4. Left to Right: Gwen Grastorf, Eva Wilhelm, and Drew Kopas. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

Production photo from A Commedia Romeo and Juliet. Presented at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Jan 12 — Feb 4. Left to Right: Gwen Grastorf, Eva Wilhelm, and Drew Kopas. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

So, the point of this Faction of Fools production is to emphasize the comedy — the Commedia — that inspired Shakespeare to write this play. There are five players who switch parts by donning masks, wigs and aprons and pulling the aprons over their shoulders to look like capes. The comedy is physical, almost slapstick, and very fun. Even as bodies appear, the tone is light, players who must take on another role are replaced by large rag dolls and onward they go to the bitter end.

It’s a fun production and would be great for kids — it’s only an hour long and there’s a bit of sword play. The Arts Barn is a nice venue — just 99 seats, so you always feel close to the action on stage. The show continues through January 26, but if you can’t make it to Gaithersburg, I found a video of them doing the same show at the Kennedy Center last year. Enjoy!

Production photo from A Commedia Romeo and Juliet. Presented at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Jan 12 — Feb 4. Left to Right: Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas and Toby Mulford. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

Production photo from A Commedia Romeo and Juliet. Presented at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Jan 12 — Feb 4. Left to Right: Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas and Toby Mulford. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

© All Content, Copyright 2013 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Standard Deviants

August 17, 2012 at 12:50 am (Asides, Film Adaptations) (, , , )

I had never heard of the Standard Deviants PBS series, but I saw a disk on Shakespeare’s tragedies available on Netflix and thought I’d give it a try. This video focuses on Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. I found it enjoyable, if not earth-shaking. It’s geared toward kids, and presents everything in a lighthearted, easily accessible way. It looks quite low-budget, but I thought it was well done.

This disk begins with Titus Andronicus, describing Shakespeare’s sources and influences. There is an amusing, but easy-to-follow plot summary of the carnage, and an analysis of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this little-known play. They end it up by describing it as a failure as a tragedy, due to poetic excess and theatrical busyness — cluttered and contrived drama that doesn’t work. And yet, they admit, this play was loved by the Elizabethans — you could consider it the Elizabethan equivalent of today’s slasher flicks. I thought this was quite a cute analogy. I loved this quote:

A bunch of dead bodies lying around on the stage or a severed-head casserole does not a tragedy make.

You gotta laugh at that. Actually, there is quite a lot to laugh at during this discussion of a rather drab play, and I think it would help kids understand the development of Shakespeare’s skill as he moved from the failed tragedy of Titus to the experimental tragedy (with comic elements) of Romeo and Juliet and culminating in the masterpiece… Hamlet.

The discussion of Romeo and Juliet focuses on the beautiful poetry, images of light, and on the great characters. But it points out that the characters are not tragic figures and that the coincidences that result in the unhappy ending are simply plot devices that weaken the dramatic whole of the play… like everything would be cool if only an audience member would yell out “She’s not really dead!” before Romeo drinks the poison. These are not inevitable events, and they “stretch believability to the breaking point.” So, in their analysis, R&J does not represent a great tragedy, but is an interesting experiment by Shakespeare in combining comic characters with comic situations and taking them on a tragic journey. I think this is a great way to explain it to kids.

Hamlet is given more analysis. In addition to the plot summary, they discuss mystery and intrigue (the spying, lack of trust), Hamlet’s character (set in high relief against the other characters who each serve as a foil to Hamlet), philosophy (morality, how to endure suffering, the meaning of death), revenge (a popular theme in Elizabethan theater), and again an analysis of how the play fares as a tragedy (perfection!).

They point out that Hamlet is a “play of questions” and how the entire play is a riddle, with great characters, great dialog, and great ideas — endlessly fascinating. Hamlet changes and grows and audience members each see themselves in different aspects of his character.

I just noticed a local connection… the actor who portrays Hamlet and performs other scenes in this video is KenYatta Rogers, who now teaches at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD and is the contact for their annual WillPower program.

Anyway, this video is not going to provide insight to a Shakespearean scholar or even a college student probably, but I think for a nice general overview, accessible to kids, this does a great job. There is apparently more to the set (another disk on Macbeth, Lear, and Othello, as well as background info on Shakespeare, verse, and Elizabethan theater), but these do not appear to be available on Netflix now. You can get them on Amazon or for 7-day use for $1.99 on YouTube.

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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And It’s One, Two, Three… What Are We Fighting For?

June 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm (Coriolanus, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe McDonald

I’ll put it right out there to stem any confusion. I’m anti-war. I’ve had a little coincidental convergence of anti-war stuff going on this week. I’ve been reading Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop — a satire about the media creating news about a promising little war in Africa in the 1930s. Then, my dad, a WWII vet, mentioned watching a touching documentary on PBS on Memorial Day. This is Where We Take Our Stand is the story of Iraq Veterans Against the War. It was available on YouTube briefly this week and I was able to watch it. Amazing stories of patriotic young people who want to tell their truths about the wrongness of the Iraq war. Oh, and then this morning, I saw today is the 40th anniversary of the famous napalm girl photo. Sigh. And so my thoughts turn to Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock. Whoopee! We’re all gonna die. Really, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, where ever. What’s the point?

So, the Fates converged on my pessimistic mood by putting Ralph Fiennes’ film Coriolanus out on DVD this week and there I found it in my mailbox yesterday fresh from Netflix. Ahh. Well, here’s the thing. When the film came out earlier this year, I knew I’d see it eventually. Shakespeare didn’t shy away from tackling difficult topics, so I knew in the course of this blog project that I would have to eventually face the ugly stuff along with the fairies and ass-heads. War. Let’s put a face on it. Coriolanus.

So, I broke my basic movie-watching rules (I avoid blood and gore, violence, Mafia movies, and war movies, in general) and I watched Coriolanus. I’m glad I did.

I am not familiar with the play, have not read it, have not seen it staged, and honestly, I think I would not like it if I’d read it first without seeing this film. Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me a copy of Coriolanus: The Shooting Script… I got a lot of insight about the film and the play by reading the commentary from Fiennes and screenplay writer John Logan.

First, the film makes this play completely contemporary and accessible. The film was shot in Serbia, but it could be any modern city. From “The Shooting Script”:

It might be Mexico City. Or Chechnya. Or El Salvador. Or Detroit. Or Baghdad. Or London.

This Rome is a modern place. It is our world right now: immediately recognizable to us…. It is a volatile, dangerous world.

The story involves Coriolanus, a Roman, and his fight against the neighboring Volsces, headed by Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler). The film portrays them as modern guerrillas. Again, from “The Shooting Script”:

The Volsces are an insurgent force challenging the monolithic might of Rome: rebels that suggest to us Latin American revolutionaries or Hamas fighters or Chechnian separatists.

The war story is the backdrop in this film for Shakespeare’s amazing characters. I think of Mad Men, where none are likable, but their personalities and stories are irresistible in their awfulness. I feel like I understand the deep pride and inner pain that drive Fiennes’ Coriolanus, the killing machine, to such destruction of others, and finally himself.

Coriolanus is a tragic, bedeviled man, uncomfortable in his own damaged and flawed skin. Fiennes explains in “The Shooting Script”:

Coriolanus comes into the opening of the story and basically tells the people to go fuck themselves. I think we in the audience decide we don’t like this guy based on that simple fact. But then the audience experiences him as a soldier, an extremely brave, almost crazy kind of soldier. They come to see that he has a kind of integrity, which is manipulated and destroyed by the world around him, and by his own arrogance and pride. Coriolanus wants recognition and doesn’t want it at the same time. He is very riven. I think he’s happiest in the battlefield; that’s where he is at one with himself.

I have to say that reading that gave me a much deeper understanding of what Coriolanus was about… his motivations and his ambivalence. It’s very true.

This man, so brave and proud, so sure of himself and his decision to make Rome pay for their treatment of him… he’s really a mommy’s boy and a pleaser. As writer John Logan says in “The Shooting Script”:

What is Shakespeare’s genius in Coriolanus? To me it is this: in a play about so many things, and so deeply and murkily about them, the climax is a boy weeping into his mother’s arms. It’s dead simple. It’s not a political or military climax, it’s not a grand speech or battle; it’s not about the ostensible “issues” of the play. It’s a boy and his mom.

Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, and Harry Fenn in Coriolanus. Photo by Larry D. Horricks

I love watching Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Volumnia, the mother who creates the ultimate soldier and then asks for his mercy. Her profound complexity — a mix of pride and ambition and fear and mother’s love — it’s amazing and frightening. Redgrave, though she doubted her ability to play the part, is perfect for it.

In “The Shooting Script,” Fiennes also explains his choice of Jessica Chastain for the innocent, sweet, and nearly silent wife Virgilia (what a breakout year for Chastain… with her performances in Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Help). It’s a quiet part, but she serves as witness to the chaos in Coriolanus’ mind.

In the end, I got a lot out of this difficult film, enriched by The Shooting Script. I had never heard of The Shooting Script series, and will definitely keep it in mind when I want to learn more about a film.

I think I’ve had enough war for the week. Now I’ll return to my regularly-scheduled programming.

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Slings and Arrows

May 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm (Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Oh my, oh my, what fun I’ve had the last couple weeks watching the first season of the 2003 Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. The show is set in fictional New Burbage where a venerated Shakespeare festival (a la Stratford, Ontario) is undergoing major changes in personnel, funding, and focus. I will be honest, I didn’t expect much from this series, but oh my, it is excellent… modern and funny, wonderful characters, great acting, and of course, the central theme is the actors’ efforts to put Shakespeare on the stage.

The show begins with the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the accidental death of the festival’s artistic director Oliver (played by Stephen Oimette). Former actor Geoffrey (Paul Gross) is pulled in to replace Oliver, and finds himself haunted by Oliver’s ghost. Sounds corny, but it works! Many complications ensue, as Geoffrey must produce Hamlet, a play that marked the end of his acting career when he suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of a performance. The back story unfolds slowly over a number of episodes, with the help of Oliver’s ghost. We learn that Geoffrey was in love with leading lady Ellen (played by Paul Gross’s real life wife Martha Burns) and heartbroken when he learned that Ellen had slept with Oliver, who is gay.

The comic foil to the actors’ drama is the hilarious, almost slapstick idiocy of the marketing office, fronted by clueless general manager Richard (Mark McKinney) but really controlled by the corporate schemer Holly (Jennifer Irwin). Holly sends elderly board member May into a coma when she brings into her hospital room a scale model of the proposed “Shakespeareville” theme park, complete with glitzy theater for performances of two musicals per day!

There is also a great side story involving the young Kate (Rachel McAdams), who ends up playing a mighty fine Ophelia, and her Hamlet, the American movie star Jack (Luke Kirby), who lacks the courage to face his slings and arrows until the very last moment, when he pulls off a great performance. As Anna the stage manager says at the end, “F— me blue, we’re done.” (Umm, yeah, this series is not recommended for children.)

What I liked best, not surprisingly, was watching actors discuss Shakespeare’s words and meaning and how to bring it to life on the modern stage. I’m sure all modern Shakespeare companies face these realities… marketing, financing productions, the difficulty finding audiences, artistic differences, personality conflicts. It is fun to watch it all play out. When Geoffrey takes over as director of Hamlet, he says, “One encouraging thing that I can say is I just happen to believe this play is the single greatest achievement in Western art. We’ve got that much going for us.” Bravo!

I’m looking forward to watching season two unfold around Macbeth and season three with King Lear. I don’t think I’ve seen another TV series rated 5 stars on Amazon, but this one is. It’s also on Netflix. Watch it!

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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My Shakespeare

March 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet) (, , , , , )

Paterson Joseph, an actor who grew up in one of London’s gritty, inner-city neighborhoods, challenges himself to bring Shakespeare back to the ‘hood by directing a high-quality, West End production of Romeo and Juliet using kids off the streets as actors. He gives himself a month to accomplish the entire task.

My Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet with Baz Luhrmann is a 2004 PBS documentary that follows Paterson through the whole process, from casting through final performance. Baz Luhrmann provides long-distance advice and moral support from Australia via videoconferencing (pre-Skype, which appears very clunky now!). Paterson deals with enormous challenges as he helps cast members learn lines (many of the actors are immigrants), gain confidence in their ability to act, their ability to commit to something like this, to attend practices, pay attention, try hard, see it through to completion… every bit of it is new for all of them, including Paterson himself, who has never directed a play before.

I thought the story was very touching… how Paterson was able to really reach these kids and demonstrate for them the relevance of Shakespeare in their lives. The girl playing Juliet is a shy Afghan refugee who begins rehearsals completely unable to imagine herself kissing a man at all, let alone in front of an audience. Paterson helps her gain confidence and bring emotion into her part and her final performance is lovely! The boy playing Mercutio identifies fully with the part and is able to really project the meaning of Mercutio’s words, including the difficult Queen Mab speech. Romeo is so taken with his experience that he decides to pursue an acting career!

I really disliked Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. In this documentary, in addition to serving as Paterson’s long-distance mentor, Luhrmann also is interviewed extensively and serves as the resident expert on directing Shakespeare and teasing out Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern world. I found him somewhat distracting and pretentious much of the time, as he’s interviewed from his enormous, swank Sydney mansion against a Wall of Fame in honor of himself with posters from the film and lots of candles everywhere. But getting past my prejudice, I think he does sometimes add interesting insights into working with Shakespeare with modern audiences.

I like this film a lot. I worried with Paterson about whether he had bitten off more than he could chew. I empathized with Juliet about whether she could really pull off this whole acting thing. I enjoyed watching them all learn to emote physically — Paterson has them do exercises where they express joy, pain, sadness and other emotions at different levels on a scale from 1 to 10. It was riveting hearing from Romeo about his actual stabbing in a street fight and what this brought to his understanding of the fight scenes in the play. I felt sad that the girl playing the Nurse just did not have it in her and had to be replaced days before opening night. I loved watching the actors tour the Globe Theatre and imagine themselves there with the Bard. And finally, I was so happy for them, as they performed the play admirably to their West End audience. Very nicely done!

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Hobart Shakespeareans

November 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , )

My kids go to school in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the best districts in the U.S. and yet my 10 year old is struggling to put words onto paper. Here I am, a writer, an editor… a person who loves words. And I have really struggled with helping my son, because the way he is taught makes no sense to me. He brings home the most inane worksheets, character maps… busy work! I don’t write like that and I don’t even like thinking about them.

I’ve struggled with this and then last week, Jay Mathews, an education columnist in the Washington Post, wrote a column that put my ambivalence into words: Writing Lessons? Please stop. He speaks of the mechanical way children are taught to write. This was what I needed to see. This is the paragraph where I had my epiphany:

The result of such clerical work is usually unreadable. Few people who learn to write this way ever make it their life’s work. The professional writers I know got excited not in class but while compiling personal journals, or composing poems and songs, or sending long letters or e-mails to friends, or working for the school newspaper.

A friend of mine who teaches said she uses the “hamburger model” — layering sentences in each paragraph — for teaching writing to little kids. No offense, Debbie, or if any of my kids’ teachers read this, but… I can’t imagine getting excited about writing that way. It is clerical. It’s boring! No, it’s mind-numbing. And it has very little to do with translating thoughts onto paper. I have a vague and excruciating memory of being forced to write a paper on Huckleberry Finn in high school using outlines and this kind of structured paragraph. Eeek!

I essentially studied reading and writing in college (English lit, history and Spanish) and wrote a whole lot of papers. I skipped Freshman English, but had a writing seminar first quarter Freshman year where I learned a lasting lesson. My professor, Michael Squires, covered my papers with T’s for “Tighten”! Say what you mean in as few words as possible. Cut to the chase. I’ve been writing professionally for decades — research reports, proposals, articles, books. I have never once thought about structuring my paragraphs like hamburgers. I think about what I’m trying to say… and then I make sure I say it clearly. And I Tighten (thank you, Dr. Squires!). And I edit, edit, and re-edit my own work.

So, I struggled with helping my son, and then a light went off and I thought… no, I cannot help him with any of the busy work, but I can help him learn to write, because I love to write and I am good at it. Reading and writing and learning about words and loving them… that I get. I know that teachers have a tough job, but using structured methods is not the way to teach a creative skill. Jay Mathews is apparently getting quite a lot of feedback. The latest column asked people to share their anecdotes: What made you a better writer? I’m looking forward to the follow-ups columns.

So, with this all recently on my mind, it was with great interest that I watched The Hobart Shakespeareans (made by Mel Stuart for the PBS series POV). In the mode of Jaime Escalante, made famous 25 years ago in Stand and Deliver for hooking inner city kids on calculus, this documentary follows Rafe Esquith, who uses Shakespeare and great literature to hook his 5th graders. A veteran elementary school teacher who has respect and high expectations for his students, Esquith loves what he does and he sees huge rewards for his efforts.

In contrast to the suburban school my kids attend, Esquith teaches in a huge inner city Los Angeles school surrounded by inner city crime. In one scene, there is a murder a block away and they lock down the school rather than letting the kids walk home with a killer loose. The kids take it in stride — this is the reality where they live. Yet Esquith has created an oasis for these kids with two rules: Be Nice. Work Hard.

And they do. They learn to play music, they read great literature they can relate to like Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies, and Huck Finn (hopefully without writing outlines and hamburger paragraphs!). And they read and play Shakespeare. In the film, Shakespearean actors Michael York and Ian McKellen (who the students treat like a rock star) visit the class to share their love of the Bard. The children put on a performance of Hamlet. A teary McKellen notes that what always impresses him in Esquith’s class is that the children understand Hamlet… they really understand the words. He notes that this cannot be said for all actors who play Shakespeare.

Esquith is realistic. He is shown speaking to a shocked audience at a teachers conference about the fact that some kids will get left behind… that he knows that’s the truth and that some kids fail. His point is that if everyone is given a fair chance, it is then up to the kids to decide to do the work. He has a big poster in his classroom that reads, “There Are No Shortcuts,” and in one scene he is shown talking to some kids he caught cheating… he talks to them quietly and says afterward that he knows it won’t happen again.

The students are from immigrant families — the year this was filmed, all the students spoke English as their second language and spoke their native language with their families at home. Most are Latino or Korean. The neighborhood is rough. Esquith wants them to get out. He wants them to get a taste of the world they can strive for, so he takes them on trips to Washington DC and Mount Rushmore and they stay in nice hotels and eat at good restaurants (a nonprofit organization started by a former student funds their activities).

He takes them to colleges so they can see what it is like in a place of learning and respect where everyone is working hard and no one will bother them. He tells them he believes in them and he knows they can do it. I wish my kids could have an experience like this instead of the busy work “great curriculum” that results in high standardized test scores (I guess) at their school.

I love writing about literature, but please deliver me from ever having to fill out a character trait map about Romeo or Hamlet. Dear God. I think it would stop even me from wanting to write. Stop me dead and put me into a coma. You should see what it does to my 10 year old. And yeesh, you should see the mess he makes on these things trying to scribble crap into the little boxes and circles. (To be fair, maybe it helps some learners organize their thoughts… it does not work for me, and apparently not for my son!)

I’m reminded of a quote my friend uses: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” (Not sure if this originally comes from Yogi Berra or Einstein or computer scientist Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut!) I think it describes the situation at my kids’ school. There is a disconnect when they teach mean, median, and mode to second graders who haven’t yet mastered division. There is a disconnect focusing on the mechanics of writing and leaving out the art and creativity and meaning. I think teachers like Escalante and Esquith make the connection between theory and practice. They create a passion in the kids and help them find meaning. It’s a rare gift.

The film about the Hobart Shakespeareans ends after their performance of Hamlet, as the children are filled with emotion and many in tears. Esquith gives them a final pep talk, telling them that they have learned things they never thought they could learn and that this is just the beginning… that he knows they can do so much more. Reminding them of the life lessons they have learned, he quotes Hamlet by saying, “The readiness…” and the children finish “is all!”

The readiness is all.

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

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Wherefore Art Thou Gnomeo?

March 6, 2011 at 6:49 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Here’s the post you have all been waiting for! I have had no time to read Shakespeare lately, but I did have time to go to a movie on a rainy day today, and the kids wanted to see Gnomeo and Juliet. We waited out in the cold rain in a long line and we finagled the last tickets to the sold-out show (and boy, I woulda been p.o.’d if I’d waited in the rain and been turned away!). Got into the show a little late, but I think we only missed a minute or two. Had to sit in the front row, so have a bit of a crick in my neck now from staring up at the screen.

So, ummm, yeah. That’s how I spent my afternoon. Goofy pottery garden gnomes: blue ones at the blue house, red ones next door. You guessed it. They don’t get along. Blue Gnomeo falls for red Juliet. Froggie Nanette (aka Juliet’s Nurse) warns Juliet. The talking statue of Bill Shakespeare warns Gnomeo. There can be no happy ending, right?

Wrong. There are several moments when we believe our hero is a goner, but it’s just a tempest in a teapot. Tybalt crashes dramatically to smithereens, but nothing a pot of apoxy won’t fix.

Worth watching? I don’t know. Not to me. I am not a fan of many modern kids movies. All the animated hyper-drive silliness. As far as Shakespearean… um, really, I think Romeo and Juliet Sealed with a Kiss did a slightly better job sticking with the story. I don’t remember drag racing and a giant lawnmower/earthmover in Shakespeare’s version. I can’t remember Elton John singalongs, either. 

Was it awful? No, it’s watchable. Mildly amusing. I kind of enjoyed one line (in the whole movie! yay me!) where Juliet’s dad says she needs to be put back up on her pedestal for good. And she’s glued there. I thought there was some insight there. But it was fleeting.

The kids didn’t mind any of this or the inconveniences, getting soaked in the rain, almost getting sold out, no time for popcorn, sitting almost under the screen. They loved this movie! Mesmerized. There was a round of applause from the full house at the end! Bravo!

P.S. I’m going to really, really try to get back to my project here and actually read Shakespeare! I need it! Love’s Labour’s Lost, here I come!

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

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Not Your Grandma’s Shakespeare!

July 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm (Live Performances, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I must be butta, cuz I’m on a roll. I attended yet another live performance of Shakespeare last weekend! Gaithersburg was the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s first stop on a tour performing Romeo and Juliet at outdoor venues around the state this month. What fun!

The MSF artistic director, Becky Kemper, trained at Mary Baldwin College and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia (home of the Blackfriars playhouse recreation I visited last month), so it’s not surprising that this troupe uses original staging practices (audience interaction, fast pace, minimalist sets, actors playing more than one character, live music, etc). From their website:

Company Aesthetic – The Festival Atmosphere & Original Practices

This is not your grandma’s Shakespeare!  Maryland Shakespeare Festival believes in playing like they did in Shakespeare’s day, and is one of seven Original Practice Laboratories in the world.  With extensive research and training by the core company, MSF works to bring Shakespeare back to life as the playwright intended for his plays, players and playhouses.  We play with (and light) the audience, including them in the story.  We include interludes (instead of intermission) filled with live contemporary music.  We create an atmosphere of play and imagination, of poetry and visceral storytelling.  The jokes are funny, the sad parts touching.  We believe Shakespeare was never meant to be a dose of cultural medicine, but a vibrant, fun, and communal event that makes a difference in our lives.  It is a central piece of our mission to bring Shakespeare out of the dark and stuffy theater and into the park where everyone, no matter their cultural or economic background, can enjoy.  For more information on what it means to perform Shakespeare using Original Practices, click here.

The show is so much fun! I arrived a couple minutes before showtime, while the cast was providing a fun and spirited preview of the play’s action. The weather was picture perfect (in stark contrast to the humid heat at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performance I attended on the 4th of July) and there was a nice crowd assembled for the freebie show at Gaithersburg City Hall.

These are professional actors, and the show is well done, even with less-than-perfect circumstances. Gaithersburg is a railroad town with the stage located maybe 30 feet from an active track and right on a busy street. There was a train with whistle blaring early in the show, but the players just stopped action briefly to let it pass. No problem! There was a guy talking on his cell phone and a heckler (maybe with Tourette’s) through the first half of the show, but the actors didn’t seem to notice. The show must go on! And it did, much to my enjoyment. I sat right up front at the edge of the grass… a great view.

The players are well cast. Juliet is believably young and naive; Romeo is her dreamy young lover. They’re a good match. Tybalt (played by a woman) is his usual annoying self. I really love Mercutio in this version. He is fiery and excitable. Perfect! He did the whole Queen Mab speech, and I was surprised at how exceedingly long it felt in performance. It’s so odd!

Like at the performance I went to in Staunton, Virginia, the players provide musical entertainment during the intermissions. They played “Sweet Caroline” (changing the lyrics to “Sweet Rosaline”) during the first intermission and during the second break I really enjoyed their acoustic version of “All Along the Watchtower”  (marred only by the guy behind me who apparently thought it was call and response and then added his very shrill and weird wildcat howls). Anyhow.

There’s free Shakespeare in parks everywhere you look this summer. Get out and enjoy some! And if you’re in Maryland, try to catch the MSF’s Romeo and Juliet at a park near you!

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

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Shakespeare in Love

March 25, 2010 at 10:02 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I spoke too soon. I nearly forgot one of my favorite movies! How could I? Shakespeare in Love is such a perfect way to end my Romeo and Juliet postings. It’s modern, it’s witty, it’s romantic, it’s beautiful, and… it’s all about the writing of Romeo and Juliet! It’s entirely fictional, but quite believable—such a wonderful story and it’s easy to get drawn into it.

Will Shakespeare (played by Joseph Fiennes) is a young playwright with writer’s block. He’s worried about money and getting his work produced and meeting deadlines. You get a real sense of the business of theater back then. The audiences want to be laughing in the aisles. They want dogs doing goofy tricks. There is pressure from theater managers and loan sharks to produce popular, funny material that people will pay to see. 

So, Will is supposed to be writing a play called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter (and it’s supposed to have dogs in it!). But he can’t find his muse. He thinks his muse is Rosaline. We’ll call this version of Rosaline “savvy.” There may be words that describe her better. Let’s say she’s “well-known” in the theater business.

While chatting in a tavern, rival playwright Christopher Marlowe gives Shakespeare some quick plot ideas to get him started with Romeo and Ethel—his off-the-cuff ideas lay down the basics of what will become Romeo and Juliet.

Will eventually finds his muse. Turns out it’s a young aristocratic woman named Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) who longs to be an actor (in a time when only men could be actors). She dresses as a man to audition for the part of Romeo and gets it. Shakespeare soon figures out her secret and they fall in love.

As their star-crossed love story unfolds, it is entwined with the storyline of Romeo and Juliet. Much of Will and Viola’s relationship becomes embedded in the play as Shakespeare writes it. And he’s writing it while the actors rehearse it in the theater. It is a wonderful thing to watch! There’s a party much like the Capulet feast at Viola’s home where Will spies Viola and falls in love the way Romeo does. Viola’s father plans to wed her to Lord Wessex (played by Colin Firth), a man she doesn’t love (paralleling Juliet’s intended marriage to Paris). Viola’s nurse is very similar to Juliet’s. The parallels and references to Romeo and Juliet are continuous and ingenious and knit seamlessly into the film. There is never an awkward moment; it all works together perfectly.

And then there’s the production of Romeo and Juliet. It almost doesn’t get off the ground when the theater is closed for indecency when Viola is outed as a woman playing a man. But another theater manager lends them his stage and Will himself takes on the role of Romeo. Through more hilarious convolutions, Viola ends up unexpectedly onstage to play the perfect Juliet, and we get to see them performing the play together. Fiennes and Paltrow create a lovely version of Romeo and Juliet (along with Ben Affleck as Mercutio). It is so fun to watch it all come together.

There are so many wonderful convolutions to the plot. It truly is Shakespeare-inspired. I love the play within the play aspect. Also, the implications of the cross-dressing are really hilarious, especially at the end, when the Queen (Judi Dench) intervenes on behalf of Viola who played Juliet while pretending to be the actor Thomas Kent. The Wikipedia article describes the Shakespearean references in more detail.

I’m not the only one who loves this film. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow), and Best Supporting Actress (Dench). I feel like I am barely doing it justice here. It’s a wonderful and very Shakespearean film. Take a look at Roger Ebert’s review—he loved it, too!

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

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The Last Picture Show

March 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

I watched the Renato Castellani 1954 version of Romeo and Juliet last night. Thanks to blog reader Tue for recommending this one to me. It was a nice way for me to wrap up my R&J viewing. I liked it very much. My favorite remains the 1968 Zeffirelli version, but I enjoyed this one, as well. It is not currently available from Netflix, but Amazon offers a one-week instant rental for $2.99.

I started my blog by viewing the Zeffirelli version before I read the text of the play, so if I watched it again now, I might notice different things about characters or plot variations or scenes left out and that kind of thing that I’m attuned to now. I don’t plan to watch it again for now, but welcome any conversation about that if readers want to bring anything up.

So, let’s talk about the 1954 version. It’s lovely. It was filmed in Italy and the towns are a wonderful backdrop for the action. I enjoyed the scenery a lot. It’s filmed in Technicolor and the colors are vivid and striking. I love the costumes. It’s very visually appealing.

Laurence Harvey plays a slightly effeminate Romeo, but he grew on me. He has sort of a swashbuckling, old-fashioned style to his acting. It worked fine for me. I’d read criticisms of Susan Shentall’s Juliet (her one and only performance as a film actress), but I liked her. Yes, she over-emotes sometimes and under-emotes at others, but she’s girlish and naive and lovely. I titled this post The Last Picture Show partly because I saw a strong resemblance between Shentall and the young Cybill Shepherd in that film.

I really enjoyed several of the other characters in this film. Mervyn Johns’ Friar Laurence was the best I’d seen. He portrays the friar as slightly odd and dithering and in his own little dream world of flowers and herbs and potions. This seems very much to me what Shakespeare intended.

Similarly, I loved Flora Robson’s portrayal of Juliet’s Nurse. This nurse is loving and kind to Juliet and runs on at the mouth with hilarity. I enjoyed her.

And my favorite character is Sebastian Cabot’s Capulet. I felt like he really nailed Capulet’s corpulent, self-important, bad-tempered self. I know Cabot from his later years in A Family Affair and maybe celebrity appearances like on the Hollywood Squares, so it was interesting seeing him in a meaty role. His angry scenes with Tybalt at the Capulet feast and later with Juliet when she shows disinterest in Paris are really, really fun to watch.

Did I love everything about this film? No. It takes liberties with Shakespeare’s language and plot. Really, many liberties that seem unnecessary to me. Mercutio is basically a no-show, and hardly discernible from Benvolio. There’s no Queen Mab speech, there’s no marketplace scene with the nurse (a sail! a sail!) and there’s no swordplay. None! There are just sudden stabbings.

I think staying closer to Shakespeare would have improved this version for me, but it’s still a really nice one to watch as my last picture show of Romeo and Juliet. (Last, that is, unless someone brings another must-see version to my attention!)

On to A Midsummer Night’s Dream! The animated version arrives from Netflix today!

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