Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare presents The Tempest on Boston Common

We’re baaaaacccckkk!

I had a killer streak going for CommShakes shows. Until recently I’d been to something like 14 of their shows. Last year was off for everybody, and the year before that I missed it because my mom was sick, so it’s been two years off. I was looking forward to a return with The Tempest, my favorite, which I’ve started referring to as “our family play” because my children know it so well. I don’t take the kids to many productions – they went to Romeo and Juliet a few years back, and of course, they’d be coming to The Tempest.

We started out unfortunately on a poor note, as we arrived to discover there were no chairs for us. This is a free, outdoor production where you claim your space by putting down your blanket, bring a picnic, what have you. But you can normally rent chairs, which we’ve always done – it’s an easy way to contribute money to the cause. This year they changed that, requiring that you get chairs in advance, and due to a poorly designed mobile website I didn’t get that memo. So, after finding no help among the volunteers to remedy the situation, I spent the whole production trying to figure out how to get comfortable on the ground. I probably would have ended up with a more charitable review if that all hadn’t happened.

Stuff I Loved

Loved the opening. The whole cast comes out, just stands there. Breathing. Calm. Tranquility. Get the audience settled down and paying attention. Prospero, in the center, raises his staff over his head and slams it onto the ground. BOOM, storm. Chaos. Waves. Thunder. Screaming. Actors, including a not yet introduced Ariel, circling the stage like a tornado. And then, when the time is right? Prospero lifts his staff, and the storm is over. Nice.

Along those same lines, loved the special effects. You can only do so much with an outside production like this, and it being such a magic heavy show doesn’t help. But they did a great job with the simple stuff – a hand gesture from Prospero would immediately freeze a character in his tracks, or kill the lights, or summon thunder – but also with some more prop-oriented symbolic ideas, like Ariel attaching a red ribbon to Ferdinand and tugging him toward Miranda.

Ariel magically guides Ferdinand toward Miranda.

Love love loved their Caliban. Best part of the show for me. When he’s introduced he comes running at Prospero to attack, and we see that he is tied down by one leg. He looks like a vicious dog. And he’s got no cower in him, let me tell you. Standing there at the length of his rope, hopping on one foot, he’s swinging his arms and hurling sand and casting his own curses in Prospero’s direction. Great stuff. Later, after he meets up with Stephano and Trinculo, he balances the drunken comedy with a very believable “Guys, you’re not really getting me – if you don’t focus on the mission and kill Prospero when you have the chance it is going to go *very bad for us*.” Despite showing almost no fear in the opening scene, he’s got plenty of fear.

A truly great Caliban. I wish his “Be not afeard” moment got the attention it deserved.

Loved the comedy. I’m not generally a huge fan of the “play it over the top so the audience gets it” kind of stuff, but I understand the necessity for it. Miranda was a big hit, really playing up the “man crazy” aspect of the teenage girl who suddenly realizes just how many people there are in this brave new world. Later when Stephano and Trinculo arrive they just knock it out of the park. I could watch the Stephano/Trinculo/Caliban show like a tv series.

Ok, Stephano and Trinculo went a little Three Stooges at times, but I still loved them.

Stuff I Didn’t Love

Unfortunately, what I saw as a very uneven Prospero. Personally, I like a bit of a scary Prospero who runs his island the way he wants it, and takes no back talk. After all, this is a father who has done nothing but protect his daughter (and plot his revenge!) for twelve years. He doesn’t have time to relax. What I got was a father getting walked on by his daughter (during the first “pluck my garment from me” moment, she just walks away, leaving him to chase her). He then starts crying while explaining their back story. Huh?

I’m trying to read this in the context of “the father of the bride who cries at the wedding.” Prospero knows how this story plays out. He knows that every interaction with his daughter is part of this last chapter. He’s sad. I can kind of get behind that. Not usually how I see it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong.

But when he’s not crying he’s screaming at everybody. He screams the “Our revels now are ended” bit? I don’t think I understood what they were going for, there. I tried to explain it to my wife and kids something like this: “This is like his wedding present to Miranda and Ferdinand. He’s bringing out all the stops, he’s literally summoned down the goddesses for their blessing. He’s showing the full power of his art, and he’s happy to be in the moment. But then he’s broken from that trance by the realization that he still has to deal with everything else that’s going on, and he’s angry about it.” That could be complete BS from what the director/actor intended, but it’s how I figured to read it.

Prospero breaks his staff.

Other Things

Lot of stuff just kind of ends up in the middle. Like Ariel. Ariel here is a dancer. He ballets his way around the various scenes. <shrug> Ok, I guess? I didn’t get any connection. I told the kids on the walk back to the car, “Ariel’s got this great opportunity to play with the relationship to Prospero. Do they love each other? Or is it resent? Why does he keep asking, and complaining?” I’ve seen productions where the minute Prospero says you’re free, Ariel’s gone without turning his head, and ones where he goes give a last look back. I don’t feel like any attention was paid to Ariel’s freedom here, he just kind of left.

The music. Parts were good — somehow they made the “Caliban ban ban” song a real toe tapper. But in the beginning, with the “Full fathom five” bits? Their version of Ariel working with the other spirits on the island involved some singing women coming through the back of the stage who looked exactly like the women who hop down off the Grecian urn in Disney’s animated Hercules movie. Once I had that image in my head I couldn’t shake it, unfortunately.

Ariel’s helper spirits entrance Miranda.

The rest of the cast? If a scene didn’t involve Prospero, Caliban or Miranda, it just didn’t rise to the same level. They aren’t the stars, true. Their scenes are mostly about plot. But I don’t know if it was the delivery, or the blocking, or just the sound system, but my family spent most of this time “We’re lost, what’s happening?” Antonio in particular I felt was miscast. Maybe it’s because I recognized him from previous clown roles, but I was trying to sell him to my kids as, “Ok, this guy’s a real bastard, he’s trying to get Sebastian to kill the king and he doesn’t think twice about killing the only witness,” and I just wasn’t feeling it.

Conclusion

Overall? It’s Shakespeare under the stars, it’s The Tempest, and I don’t care if I had to stand through the whole thing, I’m going to watch it and I’m going to look for parts I love. If I was still in my bachelor days I’d probably go back and see it three times, looking for different things every time. Go see these things, I’m sure your town or one near you has similar. The world is made a better place by hearing Shakespeare spoken into the universe. I look forward to seeing what I can be a part of next year.

Among His Private Friends

When I started this site way back in 2005 I really had no idea what I was doing. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and basically you started a blog as a way to brain dump ideas you had on a topic in the hopes that other people might want to read them and engage in conversation. I don’t know that I knew more about Shakespeare than your average Joe, I just knew that I found the topic more interesting and wanted to talk about it more than my friends and family did. So I started a blog to talk about Shakespeare.

Then a funny thing happened. People who actually did know about the subject – a lot, as it turns out – joined the conversation. One of my new friends was Dr. Carl Atkins, who sent me a copy of his book Shakespeare’s Sonnets : With 300 Years of Commentary. Looking back now I admit that I had no idea what I was doing and understood very little of it :), but it’s been a reference ever since, both when I pull it down from the shelf, and when Carl pops up in the comments on sonnet threads and quotes his research to answer our questions.

Among His Private Friends

Well Carl’s working on a new book and site now called Among His Private Friends which aim to put you the reader in the role of one of Shakespeare’s “private friends”, passing the sonnets around among yourselves and learning the story they tell from the inside. In the author’s own words, the goal of this one is not to be a definitive reference but rather a fun read, the way Shakespeare may have intended.

The site is still a work in progress. Hardcore sonnet fans who are always interested in a new angle, should definitely check it out and send Carl some feedback! His book is due out in October.

Review : David Zwirner’s Othello with Chris Ofili

My mom loved a good yard sale. Whenever she saw something with the word Shakespeare on it she’d snatch it up, rarely even knowing what it was, and bring it to me the next time we saw each other. “You probably already have it,” she’d say, “but I got it for a quatta.” (That’d be twenty five cents outside of New England :)) Inevitably it was a collection of the sonnets or a small bound copy of a single play, something that I did already have several of. And each time I’d say to her, “Shakespeare isn’t like other books. It’s not just about the words with each book, it’s about how a particular book chooses to present the words.”

I was reminded of that story when two books from David Zwirner Books arrived. I now have new copies of Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As far as the Shakespeare goes? It’s the same words we all know and love. Well organized and presented, plenty of whitespace, line numbers down the left, glossary on the right. It’s a nice, easy read – and I can’t say that about every book, I’ve seen some real doozies of a teeny tiny font that I could maybe read comfortably twenty years ago.

Then it dawned on me, that’s not what these books are about. David Zwirner is an art gallery. Each of these books showcases the work of a particular artist, using a particular Shakespeare play as inspiration. They are little artworks in their own right. Why have just one image inspired by a play, when you can make a whole series? And if you’ve got a whole series of images inspired by a play, why not decorate the play with those images?

This makes for an interesting challenge for me, because I know nothing about art. I can say what I like and don’t like, but I’d hate to say something stupid or worse, offensive.

So let’s start with Chris Ofili’s Othello. There’s a clear statement being made here right from the opening essay, referring to Othello as a problem play (“doubly so,” even) and referring to it, several times, as a “white fantasy of blackness.” I don’t know how to speak to this, and I don’t want to cloud my description of the book with my opinions. As the saying goes, I understand that I will never understand.

The artwork is all stark white line drawings on solid black background. Each representation is Othello’s expressive face, with a glimpse at what he is thinking. Sometimes he looks happy, sometimes angry, sometimes sad.

I would love to just get all the images from the book and display them here, and we could discuss which images goes with which scene. Or animate them like a flipbook to watch what happens in Othello’s mind as the action plays out. I think that would look kind of cool, actually.

Stay tuned for part two where we look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Review: A Shakespeare Motley

Somewhere in my collection I have one of those “Shakespeare A-Z” reference books that’s something of a mini encyclopedia, attempting to reference everything of note you might want to look up from Shakespeare’s works. So when I was offered a copy of A Shakespeare Motley, described as “from apothecary to zephyr, from bee to Yorick,” I assumed it would be similar.

It’s not. This “Illustrated Assortment” isn’t trying to be a reference work. Instead it’s exactly as the title says – more of a random collection of interesting entries, with pictures. M offers mermaid and moon, mulberry and music. U gives us unicorn, urchin and … urinal? Not a word I recognized from Shakespeare, but apparently he used it four times – three in Merry Wives, once in Two Gents.

It’s the illustrations that make the book, and I’ve included some random samples below. Many of my books aren’t what I consider “sit down and read cover to cover” books, they’re “open up at random and see if something catches your curiosity.” That’s exactly what this one is. I’d love to have books like this just lying around my house that guests would feel free to pick up and flip through, maybe learn something new, maybe get a whole conversation going about interesting bits of Shakespeare.

Of course every time I leave my Shakespeare books lying around the house my wife inevitably picks them up and puts them back on the shelf, but that’s a whole different story 🙂

I don’t understand why “biting my thumb” doesn’t feature on the hand page.
This picture of Queen Elizabeth makes me think it’s misprinted right on her face.
How much room did early doctors think twins had in there?!
I think unicorn is one of the highest quality pictures in the whole book.

Letters to Juliet (2010)

Ok, I realize this movie is ten years old, but I’d never seen it. I have the book around here someplace, but never really sat down to read it. I’ve known about the movie, it just never filtered up in my priorities high enough for me to sit and pay attention.

So I’m thankful that my wife has lately been in a “what movie can we watch with our teenagers” mood. Since they’ve grown out of generic animated things, we end up in situations where we immediately see anything Marvel or Pixar anyway, but then the boy only wants slasher gore (or anything generally R rated that he knows we won’t let him watch), while the girls want teen drama stuff that’s got a little too much “content you don’t watch with your parents,” if you know what I mean. So movies that look fun and safe and interesting to everybody, that nobody’s seen yet, have been a new quest. This week they found Letters to Juliet, entirely on their own!

The book and the movie are two different things. The book tells the story of the “Secretaries of Juliet”, a bunch of volunteers who take down the love notes left at Juliet’s balcony in Verona and answer them. The fictional story of the movie has our heroine (Amanda Seyfried, who specializes in playing characters named Sophie it seems) going to Verona on a “pre-honeymoon” with her husband who is so busy opening up his new restaurant that they haven’t had time to plan a wedding. He’s so busy, in fact, even in Verona, that she spends all of her time alone, site-seeing. She runs into the secretaries, they let her answer a letter of her own that turns out to be fifty years old, which results in the woman (and her grandson) coming back to Verona to hunt down her lost love, taking Sophie with them.

As far as romantic comedies go it’s as predictable as you’ve ever seen. As the movie was still in the opening credits I said to my family, “Is it just a rom com rule that whatever guy the girl is with in the beginning is not the guy she ends up with?” I’m still wondering if that is 100% true. It’s hardly a spoiler. A new guy enters the picture, they do the “we hate each other, we tolerate each other, we’re friends, we’re more than friends, will we end up together?” thing just fine. It’s all by the numbers.

How’s the Shakespeare content? Other than being set in and around Juliet’s balcony, there’s not much. There’s several tourist scenes of the crowd, including a line of people taking pictures while feeling up the statue. In the trivia I learned that they actually had to mock up the entire alley where this all takes place because the real one was far too small for the camera equipment. Fun.

The only Shakespeare content I spotted, oddly enough, came from Hamlet — “Doubt that the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move…” Strangely out place, but I guess I’ll take it.

All in all happy to check this one off my list. Nothing especially bad about it. In fact it was exactly the kind of movie we were looking for at the time. Sometimes that’s all you need.