Review : Benebatch Cumberdink’s Hamlet

Sorry, I should probably spell the man’s name correctly if for nothing else than the SEO I might get, but it just amuses me to no end to spell it differently every time.

Last night, after months of waiting, I got to see the encore performance of B.C.’s Hamlet, presented by NTLive.

While I have some major issues with many of the directorial choices and was often making my Picard “WTF have they done to my Shakespeare?” face, I think that old Ben himself might individually be the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen.

Should we cover the good first, or the bad?  I’ll start with the opening, and you tell me.  We open with Hamlet, sitting in what I presume to be his room (although it felt like it could have been an attic), listening to old records and looking through photo albums, presumably of his father.  I *loved* this.  When I try to relate the play to people I always start by saying, “Hamlet is about a man whose father died.” Here we actually get a glimpse of him in mourning, not just in his inky black cloak, but actually going through the motions that you could expect anyone to go through that lost someone dear.  Before the scene is over he will go into a trunk of his father’s clothes and don one of his father’s blazers – but not before smelling it, once again to remind him of his father.  It’s about 30 seconds into this 3+ hour play and you already know exactly what’s going on in Hamlet’s head.  Ever wonder what his relationship was like with his father? No questions here.

I figured ok, awesome start, lights out and we start the show, right?

Nope.  Knock knock knock.  “Who’s there?” says Hamlet.  Says HAMLET.  SAYS HAMLET.  “Answer me, stand and unfold yourself!”  And I’m in bizarro world because Horatio enters and we’re catapulted briefly to … scene 5, was it?  Horatio’s original meeting with Hamlet?  But but but but but but…. where’s the ghost?  So confused.

It’s a bold move to do stuff like that because you have to follow up with it and have it make sense and flow smoothly.  I don’t think that did.  First of all, there’s no reason to introduce Horatio there at all.  He doesn’t do anything.  Second, we’ll later be treated to Marcellus and Bernardo entering with, “My lord I saw him yesternight.”  It’s like they just cut the context and shuffled it around and didn’t even attempt to smooth it over.  Boo.

Couple words on casting?  I hate hate hated Horatio.  If I could think of a way to blend the two words together I would. Horhatio maybe.  Imagine five minutes before showtime, somebody runs up to the director and says, “Bad news, our Horatio’s been hit by a bus!”  “No problem,” says the director, “Run down to the local Starbucks and grab the barista, he told me this morning that he played Horatio once in college.”  Boom, done.  Checkered flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a backpack that he never takes off, which gives him this hunched over sort of snivelly, groveling sort of character like he’s afraid to look Hamlet in the eye. All of his lines are delivered with a constant shaking of his head.  He’s also got some sort of speech impediment or something going on, which becomes more pronounced at the end of the play, where he sounds like he’s got something in his teeth.  It became grating after awhile.

I also hate the ghost.  They deliberately cut all the dialog about describing the ghost’s warlike appearance – I was waiting for the line about “wore his beaver up” because I like to see how Hamlet plays the “Then saw you not his face?” line.  But that’s all gone.  When we eventually see the ghost he’s dressed in normal kingly attire, not any sort of armor.  Fine.  But then he starts talking and oh dear god out comes this heavy accent….Irish, I think?  It was so horribly distracting I didn’t know what to do with myself.  No attempt to make it booming or ghostly or anything.  Or regal for that matter.  He sounded like a cross between somebody’s crotchety old grandfather, and the school janitor yelling at kids for running in the hall. I found it just laughably out of place.  Bardfilm liked it and suggests that he was channeling Olivier.  I don’t remember Olivier’s ghost well enough, so if he was, I missed it entirely.  He sounded entirely like he was chastising his son. Didn’t get much of a loveable father/son relationship, as I think about it.  Remember this is a Hamlet who was smelling his father’s scent on his old clothes a minute ago.  Now he’s getting yelled at.

Those are my two biggest casting complaints.  Claudius I liked – and I could swear I recognize him from other works?  Have to check that out.  Kind of doing that big, puffed out chest thing, like he’s “on” all the time and deliberately trying to present himself like a king.  Even in his delivery, which is why I mentioned above how different the ghost’s was, because the ghost was supposed to be a king as well.  Having said that, he’s pretty one-note the more I think about it.  I did like the paranoia that was coming off of him, though.  Especially after Polonius is killed, all his thoughts turn to “How do I make sure this isn’t pinned on me?”  I don’t recall that from, say, Patrick Stewart’s Claudius.  He was all business and had everything in control up to the end.  This guy seems like he’s always walking a tightrope with it all just falling apart.

I agree with Bardfilm that the first half of this production was significantly better than the second. Perhaps that’s because we saw all the tricks once and then they didn’t work multiple times. They do this cool “everything goes in slow motion” thing during Hamlet’s soliloquies, and the first time you see it it’s very neat.  But it’s not as shocking the next couple of times.  One scene I loved was the “chase” to capture Hamlet after he’s killed Polonius.  I don’t know that it’s always done this way, but this was a full-on “mobilize everyone in the castle, find Hamlet” manhunt, and it was awesome.  The lighting changed, the sound changed, everything.  You really got the feeling that, whether they loved Claudius or not, the whole castle jumped when he said jump.  More importantly, you realize that Hamlet was truly alone and that literally everyone in the castle was against him.  This was brought home (though perhaps accidentally) when he’s captured and I noticed that Marcellus and Bernardo are the ones holding guns on him.  Bardfilm wondered if that might not just be a case of doubling “generic soldiers” but I like my interpretation better, like they are soldiers forced to do their job because the king said so, whether they’ve got personal feelings about it or not.

So, let’s talk about Hamlet as a character. I absolutely loved it.  I believe that the key to understanding the entire play is to get inside Hamlet’s head.  His father’s died, his mother’s remarried, he’s had the crown stolen from him, his girlfriend won’t talk to him and won’t tell him why.  I think that there’s this gap that modern audiences often fail to leap between “I understand the words and know what they’re supposed to mean so I get what Shakespeare wants me to get”, and, “I feel something for that dude, I know what he’s going through.”   You *bought* everything Cumberland Bendybits was putting out there. You really felt like he was going through the anguish.  All of my favorite “minor” scenes hit just the notes I’ve always wanted to see hit:

* “Mother, you have my father much offended!”  It’s not “I’m exchanging word games with you because I’m a smartass,” it’s the tiniest of escape valves to let off the fury he has for her and his complete inability to understand how she could have done what she did.  This is where it’s all going to come out, and that’s just the start.  He’s not superior at this moment, he’s not going to put her in her place, he’s a son desperate to understand how his mother could have done what she’s done.

* The flute scene.  It’s a simple enough scene where he makes R (or is it G?) look like an idiot.  But you feel how truly alone he is in that moment.  These are supposed to be his friends. Sometimes I see R&G interpreted as schoolmates who weren’t really that close because Gertrude doesn’t really have a feeling for who her son’s friends are.  But here they really do look like old friends.  So when he asks “Then what makes you think you can play me so easily?” it’s not “Aha, caught you in a trap!” It’s a real question.  You were supposed to be my friend, but you too are in the employ of the guy that killed my father.

There are some overacted bits to be sure.  His emoting often comes out as screaming, particularly during Ophelia’s funeral.  I still bought it, I just wasn’t as sympathetic to it.  Sure, he’s mourning Ophelia’s death – but he’s also the guy that crashed a funeral unexpectedly and is now trying to story top everybody that he’s got more right to mourn than everybody else.

The ending is so rushed, it made me so sad.  I could have used another 15 minutes, easily.  It goes so fast you can barely tell when somebody’s been wounded.  Horatio’s the one to say “The drink is poisoned!” which was a little weird, I broke out my WTF face again, how does he know?  At least Gertrude (who is supposed to deliver the line) is in a better position to realize it.  But here, she dies as soon as she drinks it.  It’s all chaos.

Overall I loved it and I want  a DVD so I can watch again with my kids. I want to pick apart all the individual delivery of every line.  Many times they tweaked words here and there, which I suspect will make people insane, but for the most part, I was ok with it.  What frustrates me most about that is not always being able to tell when they’ve changed a line, and when I’ve merely forgotten the original line.  I think this was a very approachable production. People laughed in the audience. Often, and not in high brow academic chuckle when you’re the only few people who got the joke.  Everybody got the joke. Most of the time it came from Bibbityboo’s delivery of key lines.

Go see it if you can.  No question.  It’s one to discuss.  Will it become the standard for classroom learning?  Unlikely.  Too much stuff changed.  But will it be a popular choice among larger audiences?  I definitely think so.


Review : Heuristic Shakespeare with Sir Ian McKellen

This review is all kinds of late, given that the app was released back in April for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. But an app this complex takes time to review properly, and.I wanted to do it justice. I really, really wanted to like this app. I just don’t, and it makes me sad.

I’ve imagined an app like Heuristic Shakespeare forever. A true multimedia creation that allows you to explore Shakespeare’s work in the way that works for you. Do you want to read, or watch video? Do you want it paraphrased and explained to you, or do you want the original text? How about both? How about actors like Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen reading the text to you? I think that alone is part of the genius of this app. They’re not acting it, this is not a performance. They’re reading it like an audio book – but, this being an iPad, there’s still video. So it’s like the greatest Shakespeare talent of our generation is your own personal tutor, reading alongside you.

The problem that there is just oh so much packed into the app, that the interface is a mess. Half the time I find myself just pressing random buttons, never sure what comes up next. Sometimes I’ve got the text, sometimes I’ve got a character map telling me (with little thumbnail faces) which characters appear in which scenes. Oh, wait, now it’s a modern English translation. Hold on, now I’ve got essays and videos *about* the play.

I love that all of this stuff is in there. Imagine it, you’re on a particular scene you’ve always liked. First you have Sir Ian reading it to you. All the hard words are highlighted and footnoted so you an always pause and make sure you understand what’s being said. Do you understand what’s happening in the scene? Flip to the modern translation and get a quick refresher. How has this scene been performed? Click somewhere else and you get a historic list of famous performances, complete with images. If you’re into the academic side (maybe you’re doing your homework), there’s also a mode where you can learn all about character development and themes and all that fun stuff your teacher requires that sucks the life out of just sitting back and enjoying the show 🙂

I have a perfect example of my frustration. I’ve mentioned several times that our greatest Shakespeareans can read the text along with you, in video, right? I lost that. I cannot find it, and I want it. I can get audio, but my video has disappeared. I don’t know if it’s a bug in the app where it’s legitimately no longer showing me an option that it’s supposed to, or if I’m doing something wrong, or what. And I think my regular readers probably know that I’m not exactly a newbie at this stuff. If I can’t figure it out, something’s wrong.

[UPDATE – I found it!  The videos only appear when the app is in portrait mode.  I was reading in landscape.  Very happy to have found my videos again.  Of course, my iPad is in a keyboard case so it’s much more convenient to keep it in landscape but I guess I’ll live.]

This app needs to exist. It’s the closest I’ve ever seen to the ideal Shakespeare browser. If I recall it’s on the expensive side for a mobile app — did they want $5.99 for it? But if you told me that’s the “player” price and that I can add content for additional plays at a lower amount, it’s a no brainer.

I just hope that they rethink large parts of the interface. I don’t know how, exactly, but it needs something. This is an app that even has a built in “What level of detail would you like?” feature so that it can be enjoyed by amateurs and scholars alike, so you’d think that a great amount of effort went into the design of the interface. Unfortunately I think it all went into trying to cram in as many trees as possible, and they lost track of the forest.

Review : A Midsummer Night’s Choice by Choice of Games, LLC

Everybody remembers “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, right?  Always told in the second person, you read a few pages, then it said “If you choose to open the door, turn to page 74. If you choose to jump out the window, turn to page 123.”  I loved these things as a kid. Not only would I read through all the different combinations (and really, there weren’t that many as no matter what you picked you eventually ended back up in the same spot), I’d hack them backwards by opening to random pages and then trying to figure out what decisions I would have had to make in the story to get to that page.

It  was an easy jump for these stories to make it to the digital medium, and Shakespeare’s always a great source.  Back in 2012, Ryan North pulled off an ultra-successful Kickstarter with To Be or Not To Be : That is the Adventure.  Truthfully I think I’ve got that one kicking around someplace, I’m pretty sure I’ve never reviewed it and I probably should.

But! This is not about that. This post is about an entire company dedicated to the medium called Choice of Games, and their latest offering, A Midsummer Night’s Choice (or, Frolic in the Forest). These folks have actually got a content management system designed for creating these kinds of stories, and their library (user generated as well as their own stuff) is gigantic – I lost count at 50+ titles.

What I find cool, as a programmer, is that these “books” are really small interactive apps that can be read as part of the web site, but also treated like apps for your mobile device.  This is a game changer, because now you can bring things like variables and character attributes into it, and make all of the choices that much more complex.  In other words, whether or not the king has you executed for speaking your mind in chapter 7 is going to be directly related to whether the king is 90% angry with you, or only 10%, based on your previous choices in the story.  (That example is totally made up.) In the iPad version (the one that I played), you see all the key status bars while you’re reading the story, and several times I’d make a decision, watch one of them go in the wrong direction, then silently curse that I’d made the wrong move.  What’s also cool is that there doesn’t appear to be a back button, so no cheating – you play the hand you’re dealt.

The story itself, an original concept by professor Kreg Segall, consists of over 190,000 words that tell a mashed-up novelization of a number of Shakespeare stories.  To quote from the site:

When your father, the Duke, tries to force you to marry, you’ll leave civilization behind as you flee in disguise, cross-dressed, into the enchanted forest. Mistaken identities, inexplicable bears, and tiny but fearsome fairies await! (Seriously, they wear little walnut shells for helmets, and ride armored baby bunnies into battle.)

Will you fall into the mysterious Faerie Queene’s clutches? Will you (or your identical doppelganger) find true love? Or will your father’s spies find you first?

I haven’t finished it yet – the thing is *huge* – but I have to admit, I’m enjoying it far more than I thought I would. It doesn’t play like an old fashioned text adventure game that’s light on story and description and really just wants to walk you through the action. It also doesn’t feel like one of those old fashioned ones I read as a kid that comes across like a 50 piece jigsaw puzzle, where you may think that your 10 choices result in 1000 different paths through the story, but really they all converge (typically in an awkward an unbelievable manner) down to a dozen endings.   As I work my way through this one I honestly can’t tell how I’m affecting the story because it just continues to flow smoothly as if my decision was the one the author had in mind all along.

One of the absolute best things, to me, is that for the most part the decisions are not of the “turn left or right” variety, but get at more of the character psychology, instead asking questions like, “You realize that your friend is looking at you like he wants to be more than friends, how do you feel about that?” and then you’ll have choices like, “I’d be open to exploring that relationship,” or “Absolutely not.” If this engine is complex enough to factor in evolving character relationships and still work through the plot in a believable manner, I’ll be quite impressed.

As I mentioned, the various status bars are a neat touch – but I’m not fully sure what to do with all of them.  I have a charisma score of 23%, ok, now what? Is that good or bad? How is that changing the story?  Which of my decisions is changing that?  One UI feature I’d like to see is that when something you do changes a status bar, it should flash to let you know that.  Since I couldn’t figure out how my choices were changing those, I basically started to ignore them.

However, some of them detail your relationship with the other characters, and those are interesting and easy to follow.  The story starts and your father is angry with you.  Depending on your decisions you can make it better or worse.  I made it worse :).

I’m very impressed, a bit surprised that I hadn’t heard of these folks before, and hopeful that they’re doing well for themselves.  Wired magazine isn’t writing up efforts like these that just continue to plug along at their craft, churning out a good quality product on a regular basis.  It’s hard to even describe it well enough to market it. Is it a book, or an app? Is it a game?  Educational? Sure, it’s all of those things.

There’s a few UI things that I’d change.  As noted, I think the status bars should flash or something. I think there should be a back button so I can return to previous parts of the story to see how my decision would change things (although, full disclaimer, I know that I’d use this to reverse engineer how all my options stack up against the changing status bars and then optimize my path :)).  Although the text of the story is put on the right half of a landscape-mode iPad, it still uses vertical scroll, which meant that sometimes (often) I’d have to scroll just a tiny bit to get to the Next button.  That was a little annoying and disrupted the “page flipping” flow.  In fact, knowing that iPad offers a “page flip” layout, I’m wondering if that wouldn’t be better than the vertical scrolling.

How’s the story? It’s compelling enough.  It’s got plenty of Shakespeare elements, and is self-referential enough to have fun with it. It’s only a matter of time before you’re cross dressing and lost in the forest, for example.

What I wasn’t thrilled with was how much it tries to force a love story.  The site claims that you can play as gay, straight or bi — which basically means answering questions about what gender you want to play as, what gender your friends are, and how you feel about them.  I made it pretty clear that I was interested in playing it “straight” :), but found myself having to answer questions repeatedly about whether I wanted to do anything to encourage this other guy’s advances.  If you want to play the game that way I suppose go ahead (note – I did clarify with the publisher that this is not erotica and there are no choices that will get you sex scenes), I just wasn’t interested in that. I was here for the Shakespeare.

I’m going to keep playing through to the end, because I’m genuinely interested to see how much Shakespeare they’ve thrown into the soup, and how the story works out.

You can try the game for free, so take it for a spin and see what you think!

Review: Commonwealth Shakespeare Presents Love’s Labour’s Lost on Boston Common 2016

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been to see free Shakespeare under the stars courtesy Commonwealth Shakespeare. I’ve been telling people 13 years, I’m pretty sure that’s right.
This year we’ve got Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is one of those “Really?” kind of choices because no one other than existing Shakespeare geeks is going to know anything about it.  But I suppose by that logic they’d just rotate through Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet every year, so they’ve got to dip into the other works regularly.  (This company has also recently done Two Gentlemen of Verona and All’s Well That Ends Well, so they’re not afraid to explore the canon.  Both of which I saw, by the way.) At least I can add this one to my list, having never seen a production.  Technically I saw half of one once, but that’s a story for another day (actually it’s a story from years ago that I no doubt posted when it happened).
Anyway, here’s how I’ve tried to explain LLL to people when they inevitably say, “ooo, I’ve never heard of that one” …
The play opens with the king and three of his followers deciding to swear off women for the next three years. They’re going to do nothing but study, no women in sight.  So, of course, four attractive single ladies immediately show up on the scene and you can imagine that antics that follow. Each of the guys falls in love with one of the girls and goes about trying to woo her, without letting his fellows know that he is breaking the oath that they all took.  Love notes are written and secretly passed, the messenger gives the wrong note to the wrong girl, and silliness follows. It all gets straightened out at we end with the promise of a wedding, as all the comedies do. 
It’s not one of Shakespeare’s greatest, which is probably obvious given that nobody’s heard of it. If it’s famous for anything it is for the complicated word games all throughout it where Shakespeare was showing off exactly what he could do, including an appearance by the word “honorificabilitudinitatibus.”  So it can be hard to follow, and productions will rely on over the top physical comedy to keep the audience interested and laughing. 
Kenneth Branagh made a movie version, but it didn’t do so well.  I couldn’t tell you whether that’s because it wasn’t a good version, or it just reinforces the fact that nobody recognizes this play.  I didn’t see it.
A coworker saw the play before I did. I asked him, “And were you able to follow it?”
“Mostly,” he said, “But my wife and I weren’t paying all that much attention, we were just having a picnic with our wine and dinner and enjoying the evening.”
Another coworker didn’t even realize that’s how it works.  She thought this was a closed, ticketed event.  “Oh no,” I tell her, “This is Boston Common. People will be walking around right through the crowd.  People on their bikes, walking dogs … people will just stop and take in the show for a little while.”
I asked for more details about the show from the coworker who’d seen it.  “I was surprised by just how … bawdy?  it was.  *Lot* of penis jokes in this one.  Is Shakespeare always like that?”
I didn’t recall this one being especially over the top, so I said, “He can be.  But it’s also the kind of thing the director will play up to get a laugh out of the audience.”
“Even my wife said, ‘I thought this was family friendly, there are kids here!'”
I later learn that one of my other coworkers was in acting classes with Remo Airaldi, one of the clowns in the group who will be playing Don Adriano de Armada.  That should be interesting!
So, that’s what I had to work with going in to the show. My wife and I decided to skip the picnic this year and just get dinner beforehand, so we grabbed some lawn chairs and found a nice spot house right, under a shady tree, and hunted Pokemon while waiting for the show to begin.

I thought the scenery was excellent this year.  Most years they go with some sort of “decorated scaffold” sort of thing where it’s obvious that there’s a center exit, and some sort of upper level.  I don’t even know what they were trying to go for here – is it a castle? a forest? A wall?  All the above?  It looks a bit like the Emerald City.  But I like it!

The play opens with a dumb show that gets the point across quite nicely – three gentlemen sit studying a growing pile of books, while random people dance in and out, constantly swapping the book or adding more.  Every time a pretty girl goes by, the men are distracted from their studies. Pretty soon the random people are wandering in with food and pillows and it’s a blur – we’re studying too much and not eating or sleeping enough, which is pretty spot on.
It’s obvious that Biron (or Berowne, if you prefer) is going to get all the stage time, while Dumain an Longaville are basically just sycophantic yes men who literally trip over themselves to do whatever the king wants.  That’s not their fault, though – that’s all Shakespeare gave them to work with. But Biron carries the opening scenes nicely.  He makes a good lead.
Enter the princesses, and I have a question. I don’t usually get into racial issues and color blind casting, but it bothered me, so why not bring it up?  It just so happens that the actor playing Biron is black.  Fine. But when the four ladies enter, wouldn’t you know it, one of them is black as well and of course she’s Rosaline, who is matched with Biron, and I’m left thinking, “Really??” I thought these days we’re beyond that simplistic “gotta match the black guy up with a black girl” logic?  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt here, though. After thinking more about it, each of the princesses is a physical match to the gentleman each is paired with, which is certainly not a coincidence.  So to have both Rosaline and Biron be African American makes sense. I just wonder if I’m the only one in the audience that found it strangely racist, and whether that was the reaction the director thought he was going to get. He’s literally saying “judge these books by their covers and match the girls up with what guys you think are appropriate, based entirely on their physical appearance.”
It gets weird later during the masquerade where, if you don’t know, the ladies all pretend to be each other to play a prank on the young men. So now we’ve got the one black actress pretending to be one of the others, and now we’re supposed to do the color blind thing and ignore that.  Maybe it’s making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I call it like I see it, and it was distracting, what can I say.

I wanted to laugh myself silly at Don Adriano. Sometimes I did, but not much. I wish I could say otherwise.  Everything was delivered in a heavy lisp where you could see the spittle spraying in the lights.  He reminded me of Hank Asaria’s character in The Birdcage, if you remember that one.  At some points I thought his servant Moth was more interesting – but maybe more exciting is the better word. Don Adriano just lolled around the stage moaning, while Moth was always bouncing around the edges, ready to run off and do something exciting.

A quick word about the bawdiness? I get what my coworker meant.  I didn’t think it was bad – I’ve seen worse.  There’s a particular dialogue in The Comedy of Errors that has more sex jokes than I think this whole play has. But there were a couple of instances where, unless I’m drastically misreading the move, a male character has a moment to describe the woman he loves, and halfway through his speech he grabs a pillow or book to hold in front of his crotch, like a middle school student called up to complete a math problem on the whiteboard in front of the class right after the pretty girl that sits next to him dropped her pencil.  If you get my drift. When I saw that move twice I was rolling my eyes.  Shakespeare gave you so little to work with? 
Anyway, back to the good stuff. I thought all the character casting was excellent (racial worries aside).  Rosaline was excellent.  I wanted to make some Beatrice/Benedick references, but this Rosaline would have sent Beatrice home whimpering. She brought some serious attitude and it did work.   The Princess was equally good, verbally sparring with Ferdinand.  Even Boyet was spot on.

All in all I just didn’t love it, compared to many of the other shows I’ve seen here.  I think the material has a lot to do with that. The only real laughs came from the physical setup — Biron’s reveal when he discovers Ferdinand, Longaville and Dumain have all broken the oath is perhaps the funniest moment in the entire play.  I laughed a little at Holofernes – a little.  Which is a shame, because Fred Sullivan, Jr has always been the comic star of Commonwealth Shakespeare and having seen his Jaques, Malvolio and Nick Bottom, I hate to see his delivery reduced to just yelling and repeating himself.  Oh, and occasionally whacking people with a ruler.  Funny gimmick, got old fast. I didn’t even really laugh at the Nine Worthies.  I spent too much time thinking, “Well, this is like a light version of Midsummer.” And then *bam* right in the middle the scene just stops, we learn that the princess’ father has died, and it switches over to a funeral as all the characters don black robes and the whole mood just goes right out the window.  I realize that this is how Shakespeare wrote it, but I don’t get the point of sending the audience home depressed.  There’s one funny line to wrap up, where Biron says something about waiting a year and how “that’s too long for a play”.  People laughed at that.  But that was it, time to go home.
Going into an evening like this, and coming out of it,  I can say the same thing:  Shakespeare makes life better.  This evening is one of the highlights of my year, and it doesn’t matter whether they performed LLL or Merry Wives of Windsor or Two Noble Kinsmen.  The fact they perform it is what matters.  Every year they give it their all and I appreciate the hell out of it.  It’s free for heaven’s sake.  Do like my coworker did, go have a picnic and drink some wine with your significant other, and if you want to laugh at the dirty jokes, go for it, that’s what they’re there for. Shakespeare as backdrop makes for a lovely evening.

Presenting Shakespeare : A Video Review

A little something different for Shakespeare Day!  I’ve had a copy of Presenting Shakespeare for a little while, but wasn’t really sure the best way to review it.  It’s a hardcover book full of nothing but posters from Shakespeare productions.  So how do you talk about it?  I tried taking pictures (since I did not have any from the publisher) but that didn’t work very well.

So you get a rare video review!  Enjoy.

It’s a very cool book to appreciate the more visual side of Shakespearean interpretation. Admittedly that’s not me – I’m all about the words words words 🙂

The book is available at Amazon.

Review : Still Time, by Jean Hegland

Author Jean Hegland knows how to pitch a Shakespeare geek. She told me that her latest novel was “about a Shakespeare scholar struggling with dementia who is trying to come to terms with his life even as his estranged daughter (an aspiring video game designer named Miranda) is attempting to reconcile with him.

I told her that the Lear/Prospero crossover was going to get me all misty-eyed even thinking about it.  The whole “video game designer” thing is just a bonus for my computer programmer life 🙂

I’m not going to lie, this is a difficult book to read.  It opens, for heaven’s sake, with a wife explaining to her husband why she has to put him in a nursing home.  It opens with that. There’s not going to be any “happily ever after” here when you start like that.

Look, I’ve always said that Shakespeare means different things to you depending on where you are in life. The entirety of human emotion is, at one point or another, played out upon Shakespeare’s stage.  When we say he wrote the recipe for what it means to be human, he didn’t leave out any chapters.

There will come a time in everyone’s life when they have to experience the closing act.  Maybe it’s for your parents, or your grandparents, or yourself.  It’s never a fun topic to think about because, as I said, we know how it ends and it’s not going to be happy. But there is oh so much Shakespeare to help us through it.

That is exactly what this novel wants to do. It strikes such a personal chord that I counted half a dozen moments (at least!) that come straight out of my life. But you have to take the good with the bad. When he complains of no longer being able to organize his thoughts clearly in his head, how brilliant large scale theories come to him so frequently but yet he can’t seem to pull them together coherently when he attempts to write them down, I know exactly what he means and fear that it will only get worse. When he realizes that he’s forgotten the ending to King Lear it is heartbreaking as I simultaneously imagine what that must be like while I pray that I never learn.

Structurally speaking this is not the kind of book I usually read. One of the reasons that I love Shakespeare is that I believe in dialogue-driven character development.  I could read an entire novel of nothing but people talking to each other, as long as I didn’t lose track of the pronouns.  This is a novel about the thoughts of a man alone in a nursing home, and I admit to skimming at times, waiting for a visitor to show up so people could start speaking out loud.  There is a plot – we do learn about his estranged daughter and what’s going on in her life, all mapped against musings of the theme of forgiveness and second chances in Shakespeare’s late plays.  But when you put one character who speaks in snippets of Shakespeare into a conversation with a character who actively denies them, there had better be some depth in that other character. I didn’t see it.  Maybe that’s yet another personal chord, giving me a glimpse into a future where I don’t understand what is important in my children’s lives, and why what is important to me is not important to them.

That’s perhaps the most compelling thing I can say about this book – not only does everything that happens map back to Shakespeare, it maps back to me.  Chances are, you’re going to feel the same way. Whenever people want to whine about the relevance of Shakespeare today, this is what we try to explain.  Everybody gets older, everybody has regrets, everybody wishes for the chance for reconciliation and forgiveness.  Shakespeare knew that. Jean Hegland knows that.

At the time of this writing I have not finished the book. I am honestly afraid of how it ends.  I know that Winter’s Tale and Tempest manage to pull off a happy ending, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Review : The Fosters – Romeo and Juliet

I think I would have liked this show 20 or 30 years ago.  When I was closer to high school. This just made me feel old.

Look, every sitcom in history that’s had anything to do with a high school or high school aged students, from Head of the Class to The Brady Bunch, has at one point or another done a Romeo and Juliet episode. But not too many attempt to pull off a rock musical version.  Not only that, they had alumni from High School Musical and Glee helping out (including Corbin Bleu as Mercutio).  So I wanted to have high hopes.

As always, and I think seriously this has become my trademark, my review is this:  “Needs more Shakespeare.”

I don’t know the show, or the characters, or their arcs. So I’m sure that I missed the lion’s share of the significance of what else was going on, who kissed who, who used to be a couple but broke up and are now on stage together. But you know what? This is where I feel old.  Because I didn’t care.  I just wanted to hear the text.

It started out well, singing the prologue to piano accompaniment. The song itself wasn’t that good, but I applaud the effort.  But just about all the other songs had little to no text in them, and instead were focused on this theme of being “unbreakable” and/or “unstoppable”, whatever significance that is supposed to have, and also how “love will light the way.”  There’s a token reference to jesting at scars that never felt a wound, which is a repeated lyric in one of the songs, but out of context it’s just kind of hanging there.

Meanwhile there’s a whole other story arc going on that just reminded me that these people are closer to my kids’ age than my own.  Example?  Ok, picture this.  Set against the backdrop of SHAKESPEARE, here’s some actual dialogue:

“I’m still in love with you!”
“Then why didn’t you answer my note?”
“What note?”
“I left a note in your backpack.”
“I never got it. What did it say?”
“That I’m in love with you too.”

Whoa.  I’ve got to sit down for a minute. For a brief minute there I got a kick out of the parallel of an important letter gone unread, but I couldn’t get over the overly dramatic dialogue over something so childish.  But then I suppose if I’d let my kids watch this show they would have thought it’s the greatest thing in the world.

Oh, well.  I’ll still probably try to download some of the songs again to see if full versions are available, and if they do more justice to the text than I first noticed.  But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to knock off Hamilton anytime soon.


Review : Station 11

(Bear with me if you’ve heard this one.)

Back in college (which would be about 25 years ago, for reference) I worked at the local supermarket as the head cashier.  I was just coming to discover my love of Shakespeare so I was anxious to talk about the subject with whomever might be interested (who am I kidding, I still do that ;)).  One of the cashiers was a retired English teacher, so I asked her if she was a fan of Shakespeare. What she said to me has stuck with me all these years.  She told me, “If human civilization were to be wiped out tomorrow, and only a single book remained to represent what once was, that book should be King Lear.”

Station 11 makes me wonder whether the author was checking out on aisle 4 when we had that conversation, because that’s pretty much the story. We open with a production of King Lear where the lead character drops dead of a heart attack on stage.  (Why is it always Lear when that happens? I could swear I’ve got memory of at least three different Lear-dies-on-stage stories).  Anyway, it also just so happens that this night is the outbreak of the “Georgia flu”, an epidemic that quickly decimates 99% of the world’s population.

Cut quickly to twenty years in the future, when all the gasoline is gone and cars have been turned into hollowed out metal chassis pulled by horses. A caravan of traveling players roams the countryside, going from village to village performing classical music and … you guessed it, Shakespeare. Why, in a world where people are trying to rediscover the basic skills needed to survive, are they still performing Shakespeare? Because the people want to remember the best of what it was to be human.

I love that.  I think I’ve got the quote wrong, as I listened on audiobook and can’t easily find it again, but it captures the essence of what we’ve always talked about here.  Shakespeare makes life better, and it does so by holding a mirror up to our own nature.

How’s the book?  Not bad.  It’s certainly not the first to do the “99% of the population is wiped out” story, notably thinking of Stephen King’s The Stand as a defining example of that genre.  I was a little disappointed in the author’s belief that technology could be wiped out so quickly.  After twenty years,  nobody’s got the electricity up and running again? In the span of less than a life time they’ve forgotten about how computers used to work? I don’t buy it. I much prefer the stories where, when technology is forced to take a step backward, humanity gathers its forces to move it forward again.

But this isn’t a technology story and doesn’t claim to be (go read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano or the aforementioned The Stand if you want that). This story is about the eternal transformative nature of literature and how it can change the world. There’s a particular book that keeps coming up again and again, before the plague and after, and only once you’ve understood who touched the book and when does the story all fall into place.

As always with stories like this there’s not enough Shakespeare for me, but what can you do. I can tell you that I was looking for the sequel before I’d even finished the first one.  Alas, there’s not a sequel.

Review : Kurzel Macbeth (2015)

How long have we been waiting for this movie?  I first wrote about it (when it was rumored that Natalie Portman would play Lady Macbeth) in April 2013, two and a half years ago. Was it worth the wait?

I think it’s difficult to review movie versions of Shakespeare plays, because there’s the inevitable clash of expectations between what the viewer wants to see, and the story the director wants to tell. When we go see a staged Shakespeare, we pretty much always get the story we expected, with the only real room for interpretation coming in the characters, rather than the action.  Moviemakers seem far more likely to say “Ok, I’m going to take the Shakespeare story up to this point, but then I’m going to do my own thing.”

This version is definitely one of those. While watching there were at least three instances where I made this face:

(* Yes I know precisely the context for that original image, that’s why it’s funny 😉

I don’t really want to give spoilers, but let me put it this way – this Macbeth likes to kill people in front of other people. It’s not just that there are witnesses, either. At one point he makes it a public spectacle.  Yeah.  The film clearly goes right for the “Macbeth is crazy and everybody knows it, but he’s also the king now so what are ya gonna do?” vibe pretty much immediately.  I suppose it’s a way to go, but it was certainly different from what I’m used to seeing.

I’m not a fan of the directorial style, either, which has got a lot of 300 going for it, if you remember that movie.  When a sword hits a body, expect to switch to slow motion so you can watch the blood fly.  Then switch back to fast forward to get the audience nauseous.  I could actually live with the nauseating camera work, especially during the battle scenes, because isn’t chaos kind of the point?  I don’t really go to movies to say, “Oh, cool, look what the director chose to do there.”  It’s like special effects – the best choices are the ones that make you forget you’re watching a movie at all, rather than reminding you of it.

Speaking quickly about special effects – there are none. In this movie about witches and ghosts, there are no sudden apparitions, appearances or disappearances. The witches just kind of wander in, say their thing, then wander out. Which is a way to go,  I suppose, but then we cut to Macbeth running down a hill saying, “DID YOU SEE WHERE THEY WENT? THEY JUST VANISHED!”  Really? You lost them that fast? It was almost a weird throwback to what you might see on stage where the actors really do have to exit the old fashioned way.  Only … have you seen Teller’s Macbeth? I’ve seen witches disappear on stage. It’s pretty cool.

There’s also no ghosts to speak of.  I mean, they’re there, but they’re just played by the exact same actors with no change in physical appearance.  Again, it’s an interesting way to go – I guess it’s supposed to reinforce the idea that, to Macbeth, they’re real? But for a movie that’s ok with all the slow motion / fast forward / blood spattery things, it just felt lazy to me that they didn’t do *something* with the idea. Are we supposed to be seeing the world as Macbeth sees it? Or seeing Macbeth as the world sees him?  I don’t think you can have both at the same time.

Ok, let’s get to some good stuff, because there is some.

There’s children everywhere. You’ve probably read in other reviews that the movie opens (as do many interpretations) with the funeral for the Macbeths’ child. We then switch over to a scene that I thought was something right out of Henry V as Macbeth and his battle-hardened warriors (who have been so made up with injury that they look like orcs out of a Lord of the Rings movie, by the way) come to meet the reinforcements that Duncan has sent them … and they’re all pretty much children. So Macbeth and the others prepare the new soldiers for battle, teaching them how to properly prepare their weapons, painting their faces with war paint, and you and Macbeth know full well that most of these kids are about to die really badly. This bookends nicely at the end of the movie when Macbeth sees the progression of ghosts – the same children that he took into battle at the beginning.

But that’s not all. We see Banquo with Fleance (obviously), but we also see Macduff with his children on several occasions. There’s even one scene where Macbeth wanders through camp and stops to interact with some children playing.  Maybe it was a bit heavy handed, but I liked it.

Now let’s talk about the Macbeths. They’ve been called one of the greatest couples in all of Shakespeare’s works. Just watching the two of them can be fascinating, and we can let all the other weirdness with changing the plot slide.

It took about two sentences for me to think, “Ok, Lady Macbeth is nuts.”  Seriously. I don’t have the original text memorized to the point where I know how much was cut, she goes from zero to sixty in a single scene:

Macbeth:  “Honey, I’m home from battle. The king’s coming to dinner.”
Lady M: “Let’s kill him.”
Macbeth: “WTF?”

I’m being a bit facetious there obviously, but only a bit. The pacing feels like it’s been sped up, and it works.  Everything in the first half moves very quickly, and Lady M is the driving force. They don’t cut Macbeth’s uncertainty, or his wife’s “Are you a man?” speech.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, though. After “it’s done,” Lady M seems satisfied. So when her husband tells her that Banquo has to go, she starts to worry, and keeps trying to tell him that it’s over, it’s done, they got what they wanted. But she realizes quickly that she’s created a monster that she cannot control. She’s completely helpless in the second part of the movie, and can really do no more than beg her husband to leave well enough alone, but he doesn’t listen to her.  The line “What’s done is done” is repeated several times, to emphasize the point. She started it, she wanted it over, but she could not be the one to say when it would be over. So when she loses her mind, we understand why.

Let’s talk a bit about the ending. I’ve always thought the end is one of the best parts. How will the “Lay on, Macduff” line play out? Is Macbeth still trying to win? Has he resigned himself to the inevitable? I’ve often wondered, does he truly believe he’s immortal at this point? If so, that makes his “at least we’ll die with harness on our back” line a little unusual.  Unless you figure that he’s just saying that to motivate his troops.

True to the rest of the movie, the final battle is over the top violent. There’s no old fashioned “run through with a sword” move. It’s all a slice here and a gash there, and you wonder when one of them is just going to fall down from blood loss. That detracts from the scene in my opinion, because as the climax of the movie the director wants to make it last, but the longer it lasts the less realistic it looks.

I won’t spoil how it goes down, but I will say that I was ok with it. It’s different. Didn’t love it, but I get it.

Speaking of which … there’s an entirely separate ending that the director adds to this one, that Shakespeare did not write. So when you think it’s done, there’s still a few more minutes.  Eh. Nice touch, I suppose, but I found it completely unnecessary unless we should expect Macbeth 2 next summer.

I’ll end with two trivial things that drove me a little crazy.  First, the porter scene is cut, but this makes sense based on how they set the play. What annoyed me is that later in the play, Lady M still has her, “There’s a knocking at the gate!” line. Sure, she’s crazy, she’s hallucinating. But when you’ve made it a point to give us a setting where the whole idea of “gate” is not relevant, why leave that line in there? Maybe we can shrug and say it’s supposed to be some sort of “knocking at the gates of hell” thing.

The second one is just lazy in my view. We know that Banquo’s going to die and Fleance escapes, right? That’s not a spoiler. Ok, here’s the thing. Banquo goes down via crossbow.  And Fleance runs away.

Banquo goes down via crossbow, and Fleance runs away.

That bug anybody else? Hey, assassins, you’ve got a long range weapon and have just demonstrated your accuracy with it. How about shooting at the fleeing enemy, instead of chasing and losing him? At least shoot and miss, to let the audience know that you didn’t forget you have it.  I said before that I don’t like when the director reminds me I’m watching a movie, and this is one of those examples. They clearly went with the arrow so we could get a jump scare rather than a confrontation. But if you’re going to establish that the bad guys have that weapon, you have to be consistent!

Ok, I’m done. As with any Shakespeare there were parts I liked, but in general I can’t say I loved it. I’m glad I did not bring my wife. It’s not the kind of thing that I’ll show the kids when it comes out on DVD (apparently they’re already taking pre-orders).  Years down the road when we compare notes about Shakespearean film adaptations and people talk about the McKellen/Dench Macbeth, or Patrick Stewart’s, I don’t think anybody’s going to be talking about this one.

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare’s King Lear on Boston Common 2015 (Part 2)

[The tale begins here!]

Ok, where was I?  We did Goneril, right?  Regan.  Regan is just the right partner for Goneril. She’s shorter (shorter hair as well, for what that matters) but manages to give off an older sister vibe, like she should be the one in charge. She comes off as smarter, definitely – but it’s Goneril that you want to curb stomp at the end of the night.

What of the husbands? Just right. Albany is appropriately mousey in the beginning while Goneril walks all over him, but then has a change of heart and takes over in the later scenes. Cornwall is … well, he’s insane. Early on he needs to establish that he’s the kind of guy that can rip another man’s eyes out with his bare hands, and that’s exactly what he does in spades. We’re scared of him long before he learns about Gloucester, so not only do you know what’s coming, you totally believe what’s coming.

How was the scene, you ask?  Pretty gross. From our vantage point I unfortunately plainly saw Cornwall reach into his costume for a blood pellet, but man was there a lot of blood. He even whipped his hand back to get a nice spurting effect that you could see from a distance. When Gloucester’s face can be seen again, half his face is covered in blood.

How was Gloucester? I liked him, but it’s not like he drives the play. He was played by Fred Sullivan, the company’s comedy star, so sometime’s it’s tricky to see him in a serious role. He even got the occasional laugh, even after he was blinded, if you can believe that. His exchanges with Tom/Edgar as he’s being led to the cliff are funnier than I realized.  “Wait, didn’t your voice change? It seems like you’re speaking more normally now.”

Edgar.  Much like the Fool, I haven’t always understood half of what Poor Tom says.  But Edgar did a spectacular job of talking to the audience – doesn’t he have a line of some sort that basically says, “If I cry to see what’s become of the king I’m going to ruin my disguise”?  He plays off of Lear wonderfully, especially when he howls to the moon and Lear howls right along with him. I don’t love the final battle with his brother Edmund, but that has more to do with what I’ve always considered relatively poor stage combat by this group.

That leaves Cordelia and Lear, who I can talk about together. The first scene, as I mentioned, isn’t what I expected. Cordelia’s been portrayed as the equal of her sisters, so when she says “Nothing” there doesn’t seem to be much fear in it, like she’s afraid to say it (although her lines indicate that this is what she’s supposed to be thinking). Instead I felt like her response was more, “Nothing. There’s my answer. I know you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.” She doesn’t like that she has to say it, but she doesn’t hesitate either, if that makes sense.

Which leads to another unfortunate problem.  Cordelia is a relatively big girl.  Not fat, but not a little waif, either.  So for the big climax? Lear can’t carry her. As they enter he’s only got one of her legs, and the other sort of drags along the ground as Lear walks. I don’t really know what they were thinking there. I wonder if it would have worked to just have him dragging her body, like he is literally using the last energy in his body to do it? I don’t know, it just didn’t work. I did not get “This father is trying and failing to carry his daughter,” I got “This actor can’t carry this actress.”

Now, Lear.

How do you explain Lear?  I could do a series of posts entirely on Lear.  I thought he was amazing. I loved him in the storm, I loved him interacting with Poor Tom, I loved his back and forth with the Fool. I think that my favorite scene is the “Why is my man in the stocks?” scene, whichever that is. The way he just has to confront, all at once, that he no longer has any power is … well, amazing. In the early scenes when Lear had to repeat himself you definitely felt like heads were going to roll if somebody didn’t jump (and people did jump). Now he’s got nothing, He wants to speak with his daughter, but she won’t come. He demands to know who put his man in the stocks, and no one will answer him. The way his voice changes during the scene as he asks this question again and again, how he wails in frustration that he cannot get a simple answer to his question, really drove the point home.  Then he has to go back and forth between his daughters with the math problem – “I can only have 50 followers with you? Fine, I’ll go with her so I can have 100…I can’t have 100 with you? I can only have 25? Fine, I’ll go with her and take my 50…what, I can’t have 50 either? I can’t have any?” These are his daughters, and they just destroy him in this scene, all while telling themselves that they haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just spectacular all around.

(Funny story, if a bit non sequitur? My son is 9, my daughter 11. Well, my daughter had a friend over, and they were all playing nicely together. My son gets the idea that maybe they can walk down to the corner store and get a snack.  The girls agree that this is a good idea and they go to ask permission from my wife, who has to explain that while the 11yr olds are old enough to go, my son is too young and cannot (had my older daughter been home to chaperone they all could have gone). So to see him go from the joy of “I suggested something to do and everybody agreed it was a good idea” to “they can go but I am not allowed” just crushed him. The helplessness of the situation was radiating off of him.  I feel like that for Lear in this scene. Once upon a time he was the king, and everything he said was law. Now people are just plain ignoring what he says, and he can’t comprehend what just happened.

For the record, when my oldest daughter returned from camp they did all go down to the store for a snack, so the situation was remedied a bit. Didn’t want people to think this was an entirely sad story. 🙂  Anyway, back to Lear!)

What of his madness? It was hard to pity him because he was having so much fun, honestly. He howls at the moon with poor Tom, he passes out flowers, he makes the soldiers chase him. The characters around him of course watch his descent in horror and have no idea what to do with themselves. After the trial when they finally get him to sleep, only to wake him up and move him, you feel Kent’s helplessness that they can’t even give him that little comfort.

The big ending didn’t move me as much as I’d hoped. I’ve mentioned before that I still can’t really watch Olivier’s version of this scene, especially when he gets to the “Cordelia?  Stay a little…” line. This wasn’t that. When you’ve got a Cordelia that’s basically the same size as you and you struggled to get her on stage, lines like “Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low…” just don’t really work.

One thing seemed different, that I liked. Lear’s actual last words are “Look, her lips, look there, look there” and I’ve always taken that to mean he is staring at her face, watching for signs of life, and convinces himself in the last moment that she still breathes.  That’s not what they did here.  This time Lear is staring straight off in space (they may have even skipped the  “her lips” bit, I can’t remember) so when he delivers the “look there” lines he’s clearly looking at something none of the others can see. Is it Cordelia’s spirit calling to him? I think it must have been. Either way his last thought is a happy one.

So I loved it, did I mention that? One last funny story. As we were leaving, somebody with a video camera asked if we’d be willing to do a quick video testimonial. Sure, why not? They shoved a microphone in my hand and I said something simple about having come for 12 years and this being the best show yet. Then they asked for more, and asked what I liked about it.  What I liked about it? That’s like asking my favorite play, a question I used to refuse to answer. Ask me my favorite child next time. I could not think of a single specific example to give that did not trivialize other bits I equally loved. So what I ended up saying was, “….it’s King Lear, it’s Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It’s perfection on the page and tonight was perfection on the stage.”  I have no idea what happened to that video but if I find it I”ll post it.

Great show, Commonwealth Shakespeare! Happy 20th anniversary! I hope to continue my unbroken streak for many years to come.