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.

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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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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!

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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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Taking Two for the Team

May 11, 2010 at 7:57 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I guess this proves I will do almost anything for this blog. I watched both, yes BOTH, High School Musical and High School Musical 2. I read that the first one is based on Romeo and Juliet and the second one is inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Blech. I mean, I guess there is Shakespeare drowning somewhere deep in all the treacle, but it’s really hard for me to identify.

Let’s start with the first movie. It’s boy (Troy, played by Zac Efron) meets girl (Gabriella, played by Vanessa Hudgens). They meet at New Years at a ski resort. They make beautiful (karaoke) music together. Girl disappears. Girl reappears at boy’s high school the following week.

Girl is smart; boy is athlete. She has smart friends on the school’s quiz show team; he has athletic friends on the basketball team. I think this serves as the Capulet/Montague structure. How can a smart girl be friends with an athletic boy? The mere thought threatens the foundation of the cosmos. So, I guess that makes them star-crossed.

Then they try out for a school musical together. I guess boy sings to girl on her balcony (I might have slept through that, but I saw a reference to it somewhere). And ummm, yep, I think that’s all I can say regarding Shakespearean parallels there.

And then on to HSM2. It’s summer vacation and everyone is working at the country club. Everyone plays Bottom. Right? I think that’s the connection to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alack, alack, alack.

If I am forced to find parallels here, I think it must be that Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) is pining for Troy, making her Helena and him Demetrius. Except that Troy actually is dating Gabriella, so that makes him Lysander if she is Hermia. So, we’ll call him Demander.

And then a little money/college scholarships are waved in front of Troy/Demander’s nose, and that serves as the love juice and he is temporarily sucked into Sharpay’s vortex. But then he wanders around the woods of his own mind, duels with himself, and the real Troy/Lysander comes back to sing beautiful music with Gabriella. Yay!

Really, I am so sorry for anyone who has children who watch this over and over again. It is mind numbing and I think you must be earning extra karma points wherever those things are tracked. 

HSM is (mercifully) not popular in my own home. When I asked my second grader if he wanted to watch it, he looked stricken and said “No! Why?!” And that was the end of that. Now, excuse me while my head explodes.

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

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Bits and Pieces

May 6, 2010 at 10:11 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I am winding down on my posts about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about.

Pyramus and Thisby : Romeo and Juliet
Pyramus and Thisby, the play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is pure farce the way it’s presented by the “rude mechanicals.” But the story itself is of two star-crossed lovers whose families keep them apart and who end up tragically committing suicide at a tomb.

Sound familiar? Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare around the same time, so I’m sure there are parallels if we look for them. It seems like Shakespeare had some fun making fun of R&J by presenting a very similar story in P&T in such a silly way—bringing comedy to the tragedy.

Another similarity that strikes me is the sexual puns. They are a constant in R&J, but they are absent (or at least pass right by me) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except for in P&T. The note in my edition puts it this way: “… a network of obscene jokes running through the mechanicals’ play.” There are puns on words like “chink” and “hole” and “stones” in the wall, etc.

So Bottom is an obscene punner like our old friend from R&J, Mercutio. Maybe there are other comparisons to make between the two characters? One thing I notice is their use of words. Mercutio has a razor-sharp wit and his words and puns are excessively pointed. Bottom is an extreme contrast to Mercutio: he’s a silly ass and his language is full of malapropisms and verbal mistakes. 

More on P&T
The wedding party makes many witty and snobby comments while watching P&T, but I wonder if they appreciate the sexual jokes. I wonder if Peter Quince wrote them into the script on purpose, as appropriate for a pre-wedding night entertainment!

The other thing I wonder about P&T is how and why it seems to change so much over time. When the mechanicals originally meet and Quince gives out roles, he includes both parents of Thisby and casts himself as Pyramus’s father. Later, when they meet in the woods to rehearse, they discuss someone needing to play Wall and Moonlight, so I guess Quince rewrites the play to get rid of all the parents, give lines to Wall and Moonlight and take himself out of the play except for reading the prologue. And the lines Pyramus and Thisby rehearse when Bottom is turned into an ass by Puck are not present in the final version of P&T performed for the wedding party. There is probably no need to analyze any of this, but it occurred to me that the changes might mean something. Or maybe not.

Questions
I have a few random questions lingering in my mind as I wrap things up.

Why does Oberon want the Indian boy? It seems like his anger with Titania amounts to a temper tantrum for not getting his way. Titania doesn’t obey; Titania must pay.

Why does Egeus want Demetrius to marry Hermia? Since his daughter loves another man (Lysander) and Lysander claims to be of as high rank or better than Demetrius, it seems odd that Egeus is more willing to have Hermia die than marry a man she loves. Hermia does not obey; Hermia must pay (with her life).

I don’t mean to overplay the misogyny card. My edition’s notes point out that the standard (misogynist) view of women during the Elizabethan period stereotyped them as the ones likely to stray romantically. So Hermia and Helena’s constancy throughout the play (neither for a minute doubting her own love for her wayward man) earns the audience’s sympathy, while Lysander and Demetrius appear ridiculous with their sudden shifts in affection.

Why does Demetrius want to marry Hermia? What caused him to lose love for Helena? There are no answers given in the play. The questions linger in my mind. Love, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is all rather ephemeral and senseless. Maybe that is the point! Lord, what fools these mortals be, as Puck says.

Favorite Quotes
There are some great lines and beautiful imagery in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here are a couple of lines that I love.

I love when Oberon and Titania meet and Oberon says:

Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania. (II.1.60)

Isn’t that a great way to greet someone you’re quarrelling with?!

I also love Lysander’s smart aleck line to Demetrius in the opening scene:

You have her father’s love, Demetrius,
Let me have Hermia’s: do you marry him.
(I.1.93-94)

It cracks me up every time. He’s saying: you and her father love each other so much, why don’t you marry him! Cracks me up; it’s such a typical teenage wisecrack.

Lastly, I get a big kick out of P&T. The whole thing is so ridiculous. Every time I hear the following lines I start laughing. Pyramus goes to the tomb to meet Thisby and instead finds her bloodied scarf and (wrongly) thinks she’s dead:

    But stay: O spite!
    But mark, poor knight,
What dreadful dole is here?
    Eyes, do you see?
    How can it be?
O dainty duck, O dear!
(V.1.271-276)

It’s just so “mechanical” and silly! 

Okay, I think that’s about all I have to say about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Please let me know if you have any comments, things you are thinking about the play or anything you’d like me to think about. I’d be happy to hear from you. I have a couple more film adaptations to watch, and then I will move on to the next play: Much Ado About Nothing.

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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!

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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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Romeo and Juliet, Abridged… and Animated!

March 21, 2010 at 10:34 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

I have a secret. When my son brings me another Scooby story to read at bedtime and I know it would take me 10 or 15 minutes and I don’t want to spend that much time on it… I have a secret method for shortening it. I read the first sentence on every page and then a random sentence here or there. The story goes much faster and the kids hardly ever notice. They’re more interested in looking at the pictures anyway. They still get the gist of the story and everyone’s happy.

The BBC basically did this with their series Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. I’m sure they were a bit more selective and careful about which lines they kept, but they take each play and condense it to a half hour. They use Shakespeare’s language along with a narrator who sets the scene, introduces characters, clarifies action, etc. They’re well done.

I thought the animation was interesting. It’s kind of artsy and some of the characters are a bit odd-looking (for example, the upper part of the nurse’s face is brown, but the lower part is light). But this didn’t detract at all from the film. 

I would not recommend this version of Romeo and Juliet for very young children. My kids were not interested at all. My preschooler left the room immediately. My second grader stayed for about five minutes before saying he was done. The language was the barrier, I think. Note (especially if you show it to small kids) a bit more (animated) nudity during Romeo and Juliet’s night of bliss scene than you might expect in a cartoon.

The disk with Romeo and Juliet also has Othello and The Winter’s Tale. I was talking on the phone when the other two episodes were playing, but all seemed very good. Romeo and Juliet and Othello are cel animation and The Winter’s Tale is stop-action puppetry.

I believe these Animated Tales (there are twelve plays and they are available on Netflix) would be wonderful to use with high school age kids… maybe middle school, too. They would be really good for giving an introduction to a play. I may even watch them first as I move on through the plays. A half hour of easy viewing and you definitely get a solid feel for the plot, in Shakespeare’s words (another secret… I turn on the English subtitles because I get more out of the dialog when I read along).

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Nureyev and Fonteyn

March 20, 2010 at 9:09 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , )

I loved, loved, loved Rudolf Nureyev’s choreography and the entirely spectacular 1995 Paris production of Romeo and Juliet. Loved it so much that I thought the version with Nureyev himself dancing with Margot Fonteyn must be even better. I think I built it up too much in my mind. I like the other version better.

Maybe I’m showing myself for what I am… just a casual viewer, not a ballet aficionado. At all. I don’t know anything about ballet except whether I enjoy it. I’m pretty much the same with wine. Anyway, this version, danced with the Royal Ballet in London in 1966, does not feel nearly as sumptuous and dramatic to me as the 1995 production.

One thing I like about the 1995 version is you get a real feel for the spectacle of it—they show the crowds entering the hall, the orchestra warming up, you get a real feel that this is an event. The 1966 version lacks that aspect completely.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s lovely. The Prokofiev score is the same as in the other version. The sets are nice, many of the costumes are pretty. But it just doesn’t measure up to the other version for me.

The choreography feels sluggish to me compared to the 1995 version. There is much walking around, especially early on. Costumes with long trains don’t lend themselves to a lot of fast dancing, I guess. I just found it slow-going and not as fun to watch.

I was put off right from the start. The dance begins with a scene in the marketplace that reminds me of a square dance. The costumes are odd and the ballerinas have long, loose hair. There are a couple similar scenes later in the production. They always seem out of place to me. There’s also an odd scene of a wedding (not Romeo and Juliet’s wedding!) in the marketplace.

The dancing generally doesn’t seem as good to me. Not to be too brutal, but Fonteyn is in her mid-40s and she doesn’t dance a believable teenage Juliet for me. I’m sure Nureyev’s dancing is spectacular, but for me it didn’t feel as exciting or honest as Manuel Legris’s Romeo in the 1995 version. There seems to be less chemistry (and why the blue eyeshadow on Nureyev?).

I don’t find this Mercutio (David Blair) nearly as endearing and humorous as Lionel Delanoe’s in the 1995 production. This Tybalt (Desmond Doyle) looks devilish to me in his bright red costume.

My kids came in late, but were quite interested in it. They loved the swordplay and were interested in the story line at the end with the sleeping potion and poison and stabbing. They were quite mesmerized, really. All in all, worth a watch, but I like the 1995 ballet version better.

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