Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare’s King Lear on Boston Common 2015 (Part 1)

I once drove several hours to see a production of King Lear. It wasn’t worth the trip. It might have been before I started this blog because I can’t find where I wrote it down, but the thing I remember the most was the big moment, the storm on the heath, and Lear … bargaining with the storm.  Timid.  Instead of “Come at me, give me everything you’ve got” I got a Lear that was more “I never did anything to you, please don’t hurt me.”

This weekend I saw Commonwealth Shakespeare’s production of King Lear on Boston Common. This is their 20th year, and I’ve been to 12 of them.  This is, without doubt, the greatest thing I’ve seen them do.  (To be fair, we’re talking about Lear here.  Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It’s not like a Comedy of Errors or a Two Gents, no matter how good, is even going to be in the same conversation.)

The staging is interesting this year, showing just a backdrop of curtains (arrases?) that leave enough space for random exits and entrances, if that’s what they’re planning.  I think this is oddly basic, but I like it. In the past there’s almost always been two levels to the stage, as well as a great deal of scenery (such as a crashed airplane for As You Like It, or neon signs for Two Gentlemen of Verona).

The play starts with an interpretive dance between Lear and his daughters.  Right away I’m struck by something I did not expect — I cannot tell which daughter is which. I am fully expecting Cordelia to stand out from her sisters like black and white, but as they start I realize that any of them could be Cordelia. Soon the dance splits, however, and Lear clearly spends more enjoyable time with one of the girls while the other two plot and scheme to work together. They have a scarf that they are dancing with, and use it to get between Lear and Cordelia, dragging him away from her, wrapping him up, and so on.  Then it gets crazy dark as they pull the scarf up over his eyes and a mob comes out to torment him, before finally dragging him offstage.  Wow.

I can’t begin to describe the play in detail, because my post will be longer than the script. Instead, let’s talk about characters.

Fool.  When I first tried to read and understand King Lear, I didn’t really get the Fool.  Were his jokes supposed to be funny? Or profound? Does he love the king, or mock him? Or rather, since the answer is obviously “both”, is the line between the two? He clearly tries to show him, repeatedly, the folly of giving away his kingdom.  But to what end? It’s too late to do anything about it. If he’s just taunting the poor man, that’s hardly what I’d call love.

I liked this Fool a lot. From the minute he dances in and jumps up on the table, I knew I liked him. The way he just keeps hammering Lear over the head with variations of “Who’s the bigger idiot? I’m not the one who gave away my kingdom” despite Lear’s half-hearted warnings for him to stop really made me appreciate the scene more than I ever had. What exactly is that relationship? Is Lear even listening to what he’s saying? When he says “Careful sirrah, the whip” (or whatever the line is), it’s not delivered like an actual threat, more like a joke between them, like never in a million years would that be a possibility.

As the play progresses he has less and less to do, until he literally just stops showing up. Unlike some productions, there is no death for the Fool added in.  He just stops appearing. But two scenes really make his presence felt.  First when they come upon Kent in the stocks. Kent asks him why Lear is going around with so few followers, and we learn that his 100 knights, that magical number that is so important to him to retain his pride, have been deserting him.  All except poor Fool, who will be faithful quite literally for the rest of their lives.

The second is the storm.  Oh, the storm.  Massive wind machines appear, the dry ice / smoke starts to swirl, and here comes the rain.  It is a full on tempest right there on stage. We can feel ourselves getting colder in our seats.  Act 3, Scene 1, the storm is in full swing as a minor character forces his way on stage against the wind.  Kent, from above in a scaffolding, calls down to him – yells, to be heard over the storm, “WHERE IS THE KING?” Then, when told that he is out in the storm, “BUT WHO IS WITH HIM?” and we learn that dear Fool is the only one left to follow him.

I tell you, it’s the scenes like those that are the ones that get me all misty (and not just because of the dry ice machine!).  Kent is no fool, in a number of meanings of the word. He’s not stupid. He’s disguised himself and gotten into Lear’s ranks so that he can continue on his one mission – protect the king. All the smart characters are taking shelter from the storm. Not Kent.  Kent’s about to run right out into the middle of it. How could he do any different?

So let’s talk about Kent.  I didn’t really get him at first because in the opening scene he’s wearing glasses and a fake beard that may have interfered with his ability to deliver his lines. Or maybe it’s just that he was putting on an accent early, so that he could spent the rest of the play without it. Either way, I didn’t fully understand much of his delivery, but he certainly got his point across. He was right up in Lear’s face, letting him know exactly how stupid he was being. When Lear draws a sword and threatens to cut Kent down, Kent doesn’t back down in the slightest – instead he bares his neck and points at it, calling Lear’s bluff.

What was wonderful about his performance, though, was that in Lear’s presence he was often left having no idea what to do.  He had a plan – be near the king. Check. But when the king will not come out of the storm, how can Kent force him? When Lear ultimately carries in Cordelia’s dead body and will not let her go, what is Kent to do? Often he is left doing what appears to be cowering, stuck in this “Should I go to him? But what would I do once I got there? I have no idea what to do next” limbo that, once I recognized it, fit his character perfectly. When it comes to his final line, though, there is no hesitation in his voice. He is not merely calm and resolute in his response to Albany, he is … I’m trying to find the word. At peace? He knows exactly what comes next, and the way he delivers his last line is almost pitying, like, “Oh you silly man, don’t you see what happens next? I follow my master.”   (Reminds me of the Lord of the Rings line,  “Don’t leave me here alone! It’s your Sam calling. Don’t go where I can’t follow! Wake up, Mr. Frodo!” If it had been Kent mourning over Lear’s body, this is exactly what he would have said. And you know what? If Fool was on stage at the same time I bet he would have said the same thing.)

I’m going to have to split this post into parts because it’s getting too long.  Before we go let’s talk about Edmund.

When we talk about villains sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in seeing them as the start of the show.  Consider Iago, after all. Othello is practically The Iago Show. He is so charismatic in everything he does and says that half the time the audience is left waiting impatiently for when he’ll come back.

You can kind of imagine Edmund like this. He goes from Gloucester’s bastard son to the romantic interest of both Goneril and Regan, so he’s got something going for him. He manipulates everyone around him.

But the play is not about him.  This is Lear’s play.  Edmund is what Edmund’s supposed to be – a bastard, in multiple senses of the word. His own father gives him a note detailing the enemy’s plans and says, “Whatever you do, don’t show this to Cornwall.” So of course he runs to Cornwall and says “Look what I have!’  Bastard. I didn’t spend any time at all admiring the personality that Edmund manages to convey.  There are none of those “Ooooo, that’s so evil it’s just brilliant” moments you get with Iago.  You just spend all your time with Edmund thinking, “I hope that son of a b*tch gets what’s coming to him.” Perfect.

Wait, before I go!  Goneril.  Oh dear god in heaven did I want to see her die on stage. She played her role so perfectly that, had I come with rotten tomatoes, they would have been flying in her direction. Which is exactly how it was supposed to be. Even just standing there she could put an expression on her face that made you want to wipe it off with a length of barbed wire.  Great job.

Ok, to be continued.  Otherwise I’m never going to get this posted!

Review : Strange Magic

When I first heard that Strange MagicLucasfilm’s new animated effort was “inspired by Midsummer Night’s Dream” I wanted to be excited. I really did. I wasn’t exactly holding my breath, however.

Good thing. Whoever started throwing around Shakespeare’s name in the marketing for Strange Magic seems to have had about a high school student’s knowledge of the subject, at best.  A C student.

The way I explained “inspired by Shakespeare” to my kids went a little something like this:

There are basically three different ways that a movie can use Shakespeare. I’m not talking about actual movie versions of Shakespeare plays, I mean original movies that say they’ve got something to do with Shakespeare. First are the movies that come right out and talk about Shakespeare and use his words. Like Gnomeo and Juliet. Then there’s movies that don’t use any of his words, but try to tell a modern version of one of his stories.  (10 Things I Hate About You is the classic example here, though my kids don’t know that movie.) Then there’s movies that just take a single idea that came from Shakespeare and throw the rest away, thinking that just because they’ve got a boy and a girl whose parents don’t like each other they can call it Romeo and Juliet, or just because a king gets killed by his evil brother you can call it Hamlet with lions.

Strange Magic sits firmly in this final group.  There’s a love potion and there’s fairies, therefore we can claim it’s got something to do with Shakespeare. No humans.  No war between a king and queen of the fairies. There’s an “imp” who I guess we’ll call Puck who runs around throwing the potion on people for fun, but entirely minor characters in a single montage, that has nothing to do with the story. There is no parallel at all for Helena/Hermia/Demetrius/Lysander that I could figure out.

In fact, as I also pointed out to my kids, this story has more in common with a completely different Shakespeare story, and I bet the creators didn’t even realize it.  The king of the fairies has two daughters – Marianne and Dawn. (Trivia for you – on the television show Gilligan’s Island, the character of Marianne was played by Dawn Wells).  Marianne, for reasons that are obvious in the first two minutes, has sworn off love for good. Dawn, the younger sister, is boy crazy. The king basically won’t let Dawn get married until Marianne does.

Ok, show of hands, sound familiar to anybody?  That’s right, it’s Taming of the Shrew.

But, again, that’s as far as it goes. The actual story is all over the place, and honestly a pretty shameful product from a name like Lucasfilm. More than once I felt it was the kind of thing that seemed like it was written in about a half a day, and felt like one of my middle daughter’s straight-to-video Barbie movies.  There’s a good forest and a scary dark forest, and along the border between the two is the only place that the primroses grow.  And primroses are used to make love potion, of course. But only the Sugar Plum Fairy can make love potion. But the evil Bog King, ruler of the dark forest, has captured her and ordered that all the primroses be cut down (the latter, by the way, is a plot point that has absolutely zero bearing on the plot as the hero finds a primrose petal as soon as he goes looking for one). So of course the meek little best friend of the younger sister, who is secretly in love with her, gets convinced by the other bad guy, who wants to marry the older sister in order to raise an army (something else that’s never really explained), that he (the shy one) should go get a love potion, and then it all just gets weird.

Oh, and it’s a musical. Of cover songs.  Like a big Glee episode. When someone gets hit with the love potion they apparently just start singing “Sugar pie, honey bunch” over and over again.

Skip Strange Magic. I can’t really find anything worth recommending. It looks nice, I’ll give it that. But even that is weird, as none of the characters have that “I wish I could get that in a stuffed animal or action figure” appeal. The fairies look so human that every time they sprout wings you think “Where did THOSE come from?” and the goblins are so shapeless and generic that there’s even a joke in the script that they can’t tell their own gender apart.

Review : “Teaching Will” by Mel Ryane

So the other day, the good people at Familius wrote and asked if I’d like a review copy of Mel Ryane’s “Teaching Will : What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me that Hollywood Couldn’t“. A book about an actress who starts a Shakespeare Club at the local elementary school? How could I resist?

Having gone into my own children’s classrooms since they were in the first grade (which would translate to maybe six years old, for my non US audience), I admit that I was looking for tips. All I ever do is a one time unit on some Shakespearean topic of the teacher’s choice, I’ve never had the guts (nor the opportunity) to set up a full length after school program, culminating in a performance. This is exactly what the author does.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: my POV for stuff like this is always, “I’m in it for the Shakespeare.” The Shakespeare bits will exert their force on me like a magnet. The more Shakespeare, the more drawn I am into the book.

Having said that, there’s not much Shakespeare in this. This is primarily a book about the author’s adventures in trying to teach these children how to work together to achieve something that they and most everyone else thinks is beyond their abilities. But it could just as easily have been about teaching them how to sing, or play baseball. A scene where a child finally “gets” the rhythm of iambic pentameter might as well have been the scene where the catcher finally manages to get the cut off throw to second in time to tag the runner.

Perhaps my baseball analogy isn’t completely fair, however, because that makes it more about competition. You’d expect the big climax of a baseball story to be the ragtag team of misfits winning the big game. Shakespeare is not about competing with anyone or anything, except maybe your own limiting beliefs about what you can accomplish.

The big climax of this story is the performance at the end of the year. With each chapter comes a week of rehearsal, chaos and catastrophe, and I spent the entire book thinking, “She’ll never pull this off.” Half the time it was impossible to tell who was playing each role because half her students quit and the other half refuse to play the parts they are given. It seemed like every chapter ended with the author going home to her dinner with her husband, sipping a glass of wine and pondering why she’d gotten herself into this in the first place.

A few words on that subject. The book really tells three stories. First is the attempt to put on a Shakespeare performance (A Midsummer Nights’ Dream, by the way, if that wasn’t your obvious first guess). The second is the “behind the scenes” story where we learn all about the author’s interactions with the kids, their own family situations, and basically all about life outside Shakespeare Club. Which kids hate each other, and why? Which parents are supportive of the idea and which are just using it as glorified daycare? It probably should not come as a surprise that this had to be a … what’s the politically correct term to use here … ethnically diverse, lower income, dare I say “inner city” environment? Nobody ever seems to want to tell the story of upper middle income white kids? I admit to making the comparison to Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, only with elementary school children. I hope that doesn’t sound racist of me. It comes from a POV that I can’t escape. When I walk into a classroom and try to teach Shakespeare to kids I will not have to deal with those issues. I respect and appreciate that somebody is doing it, hey, more power to them. But it makes the story less relevant to my own life. If I went into this book looking for tips about how to wrangle children into performing Shakespeare, too much time was spent hitting me over the head with “yes but don’t forget where these kids come from and the other issues they have to deal with”. That’s true of every kid. Just because their stories are different doesn’t mean that they don’t all bring something unique to the party.

The third story is that of the author’s childhood and her relationship to her own parents. I just plain didn’t care for these bits. Whose story are you most interested in telling? I would have preferred more content about the actual play rehearsals. I suppose it’s only now that I realize the subtitle of the book is “What Shakespeare and 10 kids gave *me*…” so perhaps that was really her goal all along? If so, I clearly missed it.

But, back to the story. I approached the end of the book, the performance was only a week away, students were still fighting and dropping out and chaos still reigned. Through the entire book I’d been saying, “This is a failure, and it will end.” It did not. The show must go on, and it did. It’s not a big movie scene with the whole town packed into the auditorium. On the contrary, the author goes to great lengths to let us know that some of the parents could hardly be bothered to show up at all. The performance goes exactly as expected, mistakes are made, lines forgotten, props dropped, and generally the chaos of rehearsal projects itself upon the stage, exactly like you’d expect in any other elementary school production.

“When it was over, we all cheered.”

I admit with no shame that my eyes watered and my vision became blurry the instant I read that. Hell it’s happening again just recalling it so I can write this. Good god, isn’t that what it’s all about? They’re kids for heaven’s sake. Of course it’s not perfect. It’s not about perfection, it’s about accomplishment. They didn’t quit. The author didn’t quit. As a parent I know that feeling of cheering your brains out not for the quality of your child’s performance, but for the very fact that it’s your kid up on that stage, showcasing not how well they did it, but that they did it at all. That’s something to cheer indeed.

“Hamlet’s on my nuts!”

Ok, I’m not telling where that line shows up, I’ll just say that the book is not over at the performance of Midsummer, and when I got to this part I laughed so hard I cried all over again. I’m glad I excused myself from the room to finish the book, otherwise my friends and family would have thought I’d gone mad.

I get that this was not a handbook in how to teach Shakespeare to elementary school children (though I would have liked that very much). It took me most of the book to accept that. As I said at the beginning, the Shakespeare content is a magnet to me. Every scene or line that snuck its way into the text made me want more, and it was difficult not getting that. I think that Ms. Ryane’s story is an excellent one, very well told, and I’m very glad that it had a happy ending. I just wonder how important Shakespeare is to that story.

Review : The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth

When Bardfilm showed me his early review copy of The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth
I was all, “Awwww!  Want.”

Then Ian wrote and asked if I wanted a copy as well and I was all, “Yay!”

This … can we call it a graphic novel? Tells the story of animals in the zoo putting on a performance of Macbeth.  Not only do you see the audience, the audience interacts with the show in a series of inset panels, commenting on the action and making various puns and other jokes. This has been done before (Marcia Williams’ books come to mind) but I like it even more here, because it doesn’t overpower the story. The audience gets a single panel at most, in context with the rest of the flow of dialogue. You don’t feel as if one story is talking over the other.

This is a very kid safe version of the story. Macbeth, a lion, does not kill people – he eats them (apparently whole, as they keep talking to him from inside his belly). There is no blood, there’s ketchup (and lots of it). Lady Macbeth, forced to do her husband’s laundry, cannot seem to get the ketchup stains out and this drives her a bit crazy.  As people begin to notice Macbeth’s increasing waistline, they start asking questions and he starts overeating.   The best part is that somehow Lendler manages to give us a happy ending, while staying pretty true to the original story (including a nice twist on the “not borne of woman” thing).

The best praise I can offer comes from my son, who is 8. Right now we are going through a tough time getting him to read. He sees it as a chore, and no matter what we put before him, he’ll kick and scream and go through the same routine even though he knows it never gets him anywhere. It’s worse than pulling teeth.

Well, when this book showed up I brought it to him and said, “You and I need to read this book. This is a big deal, because the man who wrote this book knows that I have kids, and that my kids like Shakespeare, and he thought we might like to read his book and write a review of it so other people can decide if they might like it.”  At first, without opening the book, he gave me the same eye roll and drooped shoulders I’ve become so familiar with.  But I persisted, and said that we should sit down and read Act 1 together, which we did.

The next day, before I went off to work, I told my son, “Don’t feel as if you have to wait for me, you know. I know that story. You can go ahead and read it without me.” Fast forward to later that night when I returned?  He tells me, “I finished the Macbeth book, Daddy. I like books like that, get more of those.” Not completely ready to trust that it had been that easy, I asked him to tell me the story. He told me of how Macbeth’s friend “Banksy” talked to much and got eaten, and how Macbeth’s wife had to do so much of his laundry to get the ketchup stains out that she used up all the soap in the castle, and how “Detective” Macduff eventually solved the mystery … but I’m not going to spoil the story for anybody. 🙂

Ian tells me that Romeo and Juliet is already planned, and I can’t wait. This one may not score highly on the classic Shakespeare scale, but I’m ok with that. I’d rather have a book like this that has my kids asking for more, than a more advanced book that I feel like they’re only reading to keep me happy.

Teller’s Magical Tempest : A Review

This weekend I had the pleasure of sitting front row center at American Repertory Theatre’s production of The Tempest, re-imagined by famed magician Teller (of Penn & Teller fame).

I think that the best thing I can do is just walk through the play and describe what I saw. This will include a whole bunch of spoilers, so factor that in as you will. If you’ve got tickets and haven’t seen the show yet, by all means don’t read this.

We open with Ariel, who looks a whole lot like Commander Data from Star Trek : The Next Generation, performing card tricks at the edge of the stage. He brings an audience member up to perform and interactive trick. Never says a word.  Fine, I guess. Sort of like a warm up act.

Center stage is a clear bowl full of water, and a paper sailboat. The stage is split into levels, with plenty of room taken up by the musicians. The music is a big deal here, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. There are two singers, and musicians playing a wide array of instruments, including parts of the stage. I could swear I saw one of them playing wine goblets full of water.

Enter Prospero, dressed like a classic stage magician, tails and all, carrying the traditional magician’s wand. He looks a bit like Vincent Price, to pin a name to the character.  The magic begins as Prospero sets the boat in the water, and starts producing smoke from his hands. The sailors and crew come on stage, on the higher level. Prospero sets the paper boat spinning without ever touching it. It’s sitting in a clear bowl of water so we cannot see what mechanism is causing it to move. All of a sudden it plunges into the water. Prospero crushes it with his hands.  “We’ve split! We’ve split!” we hear as the first dialogue of the play.

The whole opening has clearly been re-interpreted, and it’s very dark. Ferdinand is the only character to “fall” overboard, and by that I mean Ariel drags him away from his companions. Alonso screams after his son, and even removes his crown and tries to use it as a life preserver by holding it out for him. There’s a nice shot of both their hands clutching the crown before Ariel drags Ferdinand away, still holding the crown. Then, in something straight out of Penn & Teller’s playbook, Ariel drowns him in the pool of water.  Holds the actor’s head under water while his arms and legs kick and flail, and eventually stop. All the while Alonso and the others watch in horror. This is fascinating. Completely different than the text, of course, but fascinating. It’s clear from this scene that Alonso has just watched his son drown. Powerful stuff.  That’s all we get of the opening. No introduction of the characters, no Gonzalo looking for a bit of dry land.  Just dead Ferdinand.

Ferdinand’s not dead of course, and shows up on the island in some sort of bird cage. In something that I haven’t seen a lot, Ferdinand is a ….well, a nerd. He’s terrified, has no idea what’s going around, jumps at every noise. He reminds me a lot of Kevin, the curly headed guy from Kids in the Hall, if anybody remembers that show. It’s a cute act that adds something to the character, but it did get tiresome. There’s just so much you can do with the role I suppose.

Caliban…..defies explanation.  He is portrayed by two actors, simultaneously. I would say “conjoined twins” but that doesn’t do it justice. They have not been stitched together into some sort of single costume. They are both wearing loin cloths and covered head to toe in this reddish green mud, which I did like. But they were more like acrobats or contortionists, carrying each other around the stage all the time. Sometimes one would be piggy back on the other, another time he’d stand on the other guy’s needs and stand up straight so he was and shoulders taller.  And then sometimes they’d just cartwheel themselves upside down so now somebody else was on top. They spoke of themselves in the singular, and both of them delivered every line simultaneously. That effect was pretty neat, gave a real other-worldly quality to his lines. But what was the directorial intent of the two bodies? I really have no idea. It was a great visual effect, to be sure. And it added the boardwalk/sideshow feel that the show was going for. But I don’t know if it was supposed to say anything about Caliban’s character.

Trinculo and Stephano came up….you know what? I was going to say they came up short but I’m not going to say that, because Trinculo was played by a little person and I did not intend it as a joke. Both of our jesters come out with musical instruments, looking like something out of Guys and Dolls with suspenders holding their pinstriped pants up over wife beater t-shirts. Their scenes were all chopped up, since they decided to have Stephano enter singing some original music and then interact with the audience too much. Stephano in particular seemed like he was given to much freedom to improvise, given his comic role. He asked whether Trinculo was a moon-calf turd.  Really?  He even left in the “can this moon-calf vent Trinculos?” line instead of switching to the obvious fart joke. Later, when Ariel throws his voice (“Thou liest!”) he does it using a cool trick of animating the handkerchief in Trinculo’s pocket. Which causes Stephano to say, “You didn’t say it? You’re telling me the magic hanky said it?”  Stop breaking the illusion, damnit.

All the rest are, well, the rest. Miranda is about what you’d expect, although more on her a bit later. Each of the others is introduced during Prospero’s retelling of his backstory, as Ariel plays the role of magician’s assistant and causes each character to appear on stage when Prospero mentions his name. Or her, since Gonzalo is played by a woman in this production.

Antonio is, well, evil. Over the top evil. If he had a bigger beard he would have spent the play stroking it.  Scheming scheming, always scheming. Sebastian, on the other hand, is basically a big ball of nothing. He’s playing it like he’s so busy being scared to death of the island that he barely understands what Antonio is asking of him, yet he’s supposed to be prepared to do it? I wasn’t really buying it.

I quite loved Alonso. He saw his son drown. He’s in denial. He’s roaming the island, looking for hope that his son is still alive. And, because he is the king, everyone just follows him.  So when we get our ultimate happy ending, I was actually overjoyed for him to be reunited with his son. His speechless realization of everything that Prospero had said about losing his own daughter was quite wonderful, and honestly brought a tear to my eye.

Best illusion, by far, was the banquet scene. There are illusions throughout the play, of course, in ways you wouldn’t imagine. But you know that something big has to be coming for the banquet reveal. The “fairies” in this case are human-sized crows dressed as butlers, which is oddly amusing. They reveal the banquet, and offer napkins and hot towels to the guests. One raises the giant dish in the center to reveal a roast turkey, before putting it back. I’m pretty sure I see Alonso sample some of the food, which correct me if I’m wrong is a mistake, isn’t it? I thought part of the whole point was that they never touched the food.

Anyway, right as they are about to dive into the food a fairy opens up the banquet tray again to reveal that the turkey has been replaced by a zombie head.  Screaming and running ensues, and Ariel appears. Ariel as harpy, right? Scary demon bird creature?  Nah.  Just Ariel in his same costume, holding Prospero’s cape like it’s wings. I was pretty disappointed at that. But then!

You fools! I and my fellows
Are ministers of Fate: the elements,
Of whom your swords are temper’d, may as well
Wound the loud winds, or with bemock’d-at stabs
Kill the still-closing waters, as diminish
One dowle that’s in my plume: my fellow-ministers
Are like invulnerable. If you could hurt,
Your swords are now too massy for your strengths
And will not be uplifted. But remember–
For that’s my business to you-

AND THEN *POOF* ARMS GO UP, CAPE GOES UP, AND ARIEL IS FRICKIN PROSPERO! Center stage, instantaneous switch, I never saw it coming. Truly a holy shit moment, pardon my language, but that’s what it was. And now it’s the illusion/hallucination of long dead Prospero screaming at his enemies

-that you threeFrom Milan did supplant good Prospero!Exposed unto the sea, which hath requit it,Him and his innocent child!

And so on.  Seriously, I love that. A little confusing for the newbie audience who was probably thinking that Prospero had just revealed himself to the party, but I recognized it for the desired illusion/hallucination that they were going for.

Enough of the illusions, because I don’t want to give the impression that all we got was magic. They made some interesting directorial decisions that I found showed some real attention to detail:

Antonio is the only character who does not repent. When Miranda does her brave new world speech, she runs to touch every new person – and Antonio flinches away from her, refusing to be touched, standing away from the rest of the party. They all exit until it is just Prospero and Antonio. Prospero puts out his hands in forgiveness and I think, “Oh, you’d better not show a reunion!” but I am pleased that Antonio instead hides his face in his hands and runs away, unable to look at his brother. I don’t know if  I ever really thought of Antonio as *ashamed* of what he did, but I like that they chose to put some focus on it and not just have him walk off stage with the others.

My other favorite moment is Ariel’s release. Ariel brings out Prospero’s finery and helps him get dressed in silence, straightening his tie and adjusting his buttons. They truly look like lifelong companions right at this moment, who know that a goodbye is coming.  He works his way behind as Prospero speaks, and when Prospero says, “Be free…” Ariel disappears. Prospero turns as if to speak to him, and he is gone. Love love loved it. No slow walk away, no lingering look, no last words. That’s how goodbyes happen. You turn around and the person is gone.

And then another interesting change, as Miranda joins her father on stage. She helps him put away his magic robes, and destroy his books. I liked that. Throughout the entire play he’s talking about how he’s done everything for her, yet when they are actually on stage together he’s usually telling her to sit down and shut up, Daddy’s working. So it was very nice to end on a father daughter moment.

Couple of missed opportunities?  Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda playing cards, not chess. I think Shakespeare said chess for a reason, since the play has been Prospero’s big chess game moving his pieces around the island. Perhaps this was their nod to the card tricks that Ariel has been slinging throughout the play? Then how about this? Why not show Miranda actually trying to teach Ferdinand a card trick? That would bring in the idea that Prospero has been teaching his daughter magic.

Another one, that Bardfilm brought up. What of Caliban? Do we get one last shot of Caliban, alone on the island?  Nope. We get nothing. Caliban goes to clean the cell, and that’s it. I think that was a waste. I mean, they didn’t exactly focus on Caliban’s story at all so it’s not like it was necessary to button up that particular angle.

Overall I loved it, but I was never going to not love it. It runs over two hours even with the substantial editing that they did, and there are plenty of places where the trick gets in the way of the message. For example? When recounting the tale of Ariel in the tree, Prospero actually puts Ariel back in a tree and tortures him. In this case it’s one of those “lady in the box” tricks where Prospero twists his head around and around while telling the story, all with Ariel groaning in agony. They open the box to reveal Ariel tied in knots. So….what are we supposed to take from that? That Prospero periodically “reminds” Ariel of his debt by torturing him again? That certainly does not feed into the complicated love/hate relationship that I usually look for in Ariel/Prospero.

You know what? Now I wonder if I misinterpreted Ariel. I wonder if Ariel was just biding his time, waiting for the moment where he could disappear? That would be interesting. I’ll have to think about that.

That’s ultimately what I love about Shakespeare. There is so much depth that you can always find something fascinating, something new, something that makes you want to talk about it with others.

Shakespeare and magic is a natural combination. See it if you can, and if I haven’t spoiled it for you :). I can only hope that Teller is going to tackle A Midsummer Night’s Dream next!

Review : That Shakespeare Kid

I’ve been trying to get out of the time wasting habit of checking my newsfeeds everytime I’m bored and have my phone handy, and have started working my way through my kids’ Kindle books. I suppose I could read more interesting things, but really, instead of pulling them over to read what I like, what’s the harm in reading what they like?

Recently I read That Shakespeare Kid, by Mike LoMonico. I first spotted Mike’s project about a year ago when he ran a Kickstarter to get the book published. My oldest daughter was actually one of the pre-readers, which is where we got our copy.

It’s hard to “review” a book like this because it is for kids, written in a kid’s voice, and sounds just like you’d think a 13yr old girl trying to tell you a very long story would sound. But, like I said a year ago, I’m in it for the Shakespeare.

The gimmick is that Peter gets hit on the head with a Riverside Shakespeare and wakes up able to speak only in Shakespeare quotes. He can write and text things fine, and he can understand everybody around him, but when it comes to vocalizing anything, it always comes out in surprisingly relevant Shakespeare quotes. The gimmick is silly, of course, but who cares. It’s fun. I was a little more annoyed with the giant plothole where Peter has to bring his friend Emma with him everywhere because “he communicates by texting her.”  So, then, he couldn’t just text other people equally well?

But I digress. The question I originally asked my daughter was, “Does he just use all the same old Shakespeare cliches that you already knew?” The pleasantly surprising answer is no, he doesn’t. Well, he does, but not exclusively so. There’s a wide range of quotes, some large, some small, most you’ll recognize, some you may not. I was very pleased to discover at the end of the book that Mr. Lomonico deliberately chose quotes from all of Shakespeare’s works, and even lists which play each quote came from.

If you’re a Shakespeare fan and you’d like to slip some Shakespeare in on your kids who are around that age, it’s a good book. The plot is all the usual stuff – boy and girl “friends” find themselves cast in Romeo and Juliet, have stress over the kissing, blah blah blah. But that’s what kids that age expect. I didn’t need all the pseudo-texting jargon that he worked in during the whole “Peter can communicate by texting” plotline, but I suppose it would sound more natural to its intended audience.

Review : Shakespeare At Play’s “Romeo and Juliet”

By very strange coincidence I received two independent requests for review recently for almost the exact same thing – interactive Shakespeare for my iPad. Here’s the thing, though – one is an interactive book, and one is an app. Other than this technicality they are nearly identical both in function as well as what they hope to accomplish. As such I cannot help but review them against each other. Here we look at the app.

Read the plays or see them performed?

It’s a question we’ve beaten into the ground over the years and my position has always been that it’s the “or” that causes trouble. You absolutely positively without doubt should do one and the other. The constraints of daily life are what decide which you have the better opportunity to accomplish.

Every time I have a new project I think to myself, book or app? The traditional book format reaches a wider audience with simpler requirements, but you sacrifice  your ability to really dig in and create a truly interactive experience.  An app is a more complex beast, taking longer to produce for what is ultimately a smaller audience, but you get to make it do exactly what you envisioned.
Today we have the Shakespeare At Play app for review.  Much like other offerings in this space, this product walks you through Shakespeare’s work by providing half a page of text and half a page of video.  Each scene gets an audio description, a textual description, and a textual description of the characters.
Before getting into the quality of the content, I want to mention a few other features. Under the global Menu option is a Shakespeare FAQ, whose purpose I did not truly understand. It’s just a text file, not even searchable. There is an integrated glossary, which is a nice touch.  As you read you’ll see some words in boldface.  Hold your finger on one, and you’ll get the definiton.
There is also a Download Manager. In my previous post I mentioned that without internet connectivity I was unable to stream the videos, thus giving a point to the more traditional book format. However, you can opt to download all the videos and take them with you. The thing is you need to plan to do that ahead of time, it’s still not going to work if your internet goes out :).
This is also a player app for multiple titles, and as such it has its own Library (unlike iBooks, where going to Library takes you out of each individual title).  As of this moment I think that their Library functionality needs work, it took me ages to figure out that I’m supposed to click on the unadorned price box under each title in order to complete the in-app purchase and actually get my book.
Lastly, what I think is perhaps the most useful feature of the entire app.  Running alongside the text is not what I’d call modern translation, but more like “director’s notes” telling you what’s going on, and why.  An example:

Presumably Gregory sees Tybalt approaches, which is confusing as it is Benvolio who arrives first. This could mean that Tybalt is seen by Samson and Gregory, but is positioned so as to surprise Benvolio.

This commentary runs throughout the play, and I thought it was an excellent addition.
Ok, with features out of the way let’s talk about the content.  In this particular case I’ve chosen Romeo and Juliet, since I did Macbeth in a previous review.  The company’s Hamlet is listed as “Coming Soon”.
Similar to the previous title I reviewed, each scene is a bare stage (that in this case blends almost completely into the page), tightly focused on the speaking characters. This puts an unfortunate focus on the quality of the acting, which is far from award winning.  It’s more like people just got in front of the character with the intent of demonstrating how the lines should go.  But that’s fine, it’s not like Sir Ian and Sir Patrick are just hanging out waiting for their phone call.  The value of these apps is in their interactivity, not their stagecraft.  I don’t mean to fault the enthusiasm of the actors who made this, I just don’t think that this nothing-but-character-closeups method of filming is the best way to present Shakespeare. 
Each video represents an entire scene, which you follow along by vertically scrolling the text in a separate frame. I would love it if these could be synced up in some way.  If you let the video run for a few minutes and then actually have a question, it’s going to take you awhile to find that spot in the text. Similarly if you’re reading ahead and want to jump the video to a certain place, you’ll have equal trouble.  
I’m at a complete loss as to what I’m supposed to do when I get to the end of a scene.  There’s no obvious way to move to the next one.  The unobvious way is to tap the current Act and Scene button at the top of the page, which brings down a menu and allows you to pick another scene.  I find this so unintuitive that I assume I’m just missing something.  Sure, it allows you to easily jump around the play.  But aren’t most reader/watchers going to most often want to simply say “next scene”?
What else….  the audio commentary I suppose is a nice idea, but the interface needs work. Unlike the video player which has the traditional pause buttons and progress bars, the audio offers none of that, just a play button. Every time you stop and start, it starts over.  Which I’d be fine with except for the fact that there’s no way to tell how long he’s going to talk!  Is this a 45 second commentary or a 12 minute one?  That makes a big difference.
I’d like to see many more features to bring an app like this on par with a book.  Highlighting passages and taking notes would be a big one.  That seems like an easy add.  As I mentioned I’d like the video and text to stay in sync, even going so far as to seamlessly jump between scenes so you could if you wanted just watch the whole book end to end.
Right now I think that the “director’s commentary” I spoke of is the best part of this app.  Perhaps they could marry this together with the video syncing and the audio commentary to produce something more like a modern DVD?  Where the user could opt to turn on the commentary track and then following through the play in text and video, while listening to the director’s notes?  That would be seriously cool.

Review : Read and Watch Macbeth

By very strange coincidence I received two independent requests for review recently for almost the exact same thing – interactive Shakespeare for my iPad. Here’s the thing, though – one is an interactive book, and one is an app. Other than this technicality they are nearly identical both in function as well as what they hope to accomplish. As such I cannot help but review them against each other.

Read the plays or see them performed?

It’s a question we’ve beaten into the ground over the years and my position has always been that it’s the “or” that causes trouble. You absolutely positively without doubt should do one and the other. The constraints of daily life are what decide which you have the better opportunity to accomplish.

I’ve always been a big proponent of using technology to fix this gap, and Apple’s new “interactive books” make some important steps in the right direction. Unfortunately I think there’s still a long way to go before they can compete with dedicated apps.

New Book Press graciously sent me a copy of their WordPlay Macbeth for review. Keep in mind that this is a book, not an app, and you’ll find it in the Books section of the iTunes Store.

What goes into an interactive book? Well, start with the original text, that’s obvious. There’s a summary page for each scene which includes clickable images of all the characters in that scene. Click one and you get a summary of that character’s role as well.

But this is only half the page! The opposite page is filled up with a movie so you can follow along the text while the actors perform for you. This is actually pretty cool. Now you truly can read and watch and the same time!

There’s more. You watch the actors perform it. You can see the text as they do it. What if you still have no idea what they just said? Here’s something you can’t do away from your computer — hit that “Tap to translate” button and up pops an English translation of what you just saw/read.

Like any book you can also bookmark your place, and search the text. You can also take notes as you go, highlighting passages and adding your own thoughts. The website mentions “social sharing” functions, but all I found was the ability to email your own notes.

This is a great deal of functionality for a book, and it should be viewed as such. I don’t want to take away from that. I do, however, feel that there are a number of things that they may want to change, if the format allows it:

  1. The “Tap to Translate” button brings up the modern copy as a balloon style dialogue box, half atop the text and half over the video (which might still be playing).  That means there’s no real “side by side” comparison to what you’re reading. You can’t move it.  The video also doesn’t switch over, which I understand (that would double the already huge filesize), but it would be cool if you clicked that button and then got to watch the actors perform it in modern language.
  2. Every page is some text, and a video.  That means that you get very little text per page, and very little acting (since each video only represents what’s on the page).  So working your way through the book would be an exercise in “Play video, watch 30 seconds, flip…play video,  watch 30 seconds, flip…” for 4 hours worth of content.
  3. I’m not sure what they were going for with the acting, whether it’s supposed to be legit or campy or educational or what.  The background of the videos is pure white, along with the book itself, so when you play a video it’s as if characters are running out of the page right at you (which is actually kind of cool).  Monologues are frequently spoken directly to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, which was a little jarring to me.
  4. They doubled up on some actors, which is no big deal in a real stage production but if this is intended to be an educational resource, you have to assume that there’s a younger audience who is actually trying to pay attention and learn something … and when the guy that was just playing the third witch a minute ago suddenly runs up to report to Duncan about Macbeth’s exploits on the battlefield, many readers will be left confused.
  5. Each “chapter” (Act and/or Scene) comes with a summary page that contains clickable portraits of all the actors, and one or more still images of the videos to come, along with a high level summary of the chapter. I found this more confusing than anything else.  I wanted to click the still images and fast forward to those sections (you cannot).  The “bio” for each actor is the same no matter where they appear in the play, so once you’ve read one they just get in the way.  It might have been better to use that space to actually talk about what each character is going to do in the scene?
  6. I’m very confused by the name to look for. The web site calls these books WordPlay Shakespeare, but when you look on iTunes the book is called “Read and Watch Macbeth : Complete Text & Performance.” I don’t know if that’s because I got some sort of early review copy or what, and I apologize to the publisher if I’m calling it by the wrong name. But I also want people to be able to find it in the store!

 Overall, I’ll say again, I like the idea of the “interactive book” format and think it has potential. I witnessed one advantage just this week when my internet went out. As I mentioned above I have another interactive Shakespeare app that is very similar to this one — but without internet I could not watch any of the videos :(.  With this version I have everything I need downloaded, so I could take it with me places that may not have a live net connection.  That’s a bonus that we often forget.

Macbeth requires iBooks 3 on an iPad device with iOS 5.1 or higher.

Guest Review : ROMEO & JULIET, Adapted by Julian Fellowes, Directed By Carlo Carlei

John Ott is a writer, filmmaker and founder of the website Making the Movie. You should follow him on Twitter here, Google+ here or Facebook here.

Thanks to Duane for letting me nerd out a bit more on the Shakespeare side than I would for my usual film reviews on Making the Movie.

Every generation has its cinematic Romeo and Juliet. There are some still alive who, in 1936, saw 34-year-old Norma Shearer’s Juliet embrace 43-year-old Leslie Howard’s Romeo on the big screen. It was the 1968 version, directed by Italian impresario Franco Zeffirelli, that I watched in Junior High, on one of those rolly-cart televisions, when I first studied the play. Then my generation’s entry came: the Baz Luhrmann-directed Romeo + Juliet (1996), the old text slung at great velocity into the modern, operatic setting of “Verona Beach.”

Now, for better or for worse, we have this generation’s entry: Romeo & Juliet directed by another Italian, Carlo Carlei (Daredevil, I Am Legend) and adapted by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey). If you don’t want to read spoilers — and by spoilers, I mean how it was adapted, not the story, which I will assume you know — then let me just state my opinion of the film broadly. I feel bad for this generation.

Now, the details — or shall I say, little atomies? Three lines into the film, a Shakespeare fan will notice that Fellowes and his collaborators have made a bold choice: to completely change some dialogue. I’m not talking about traditional dramaturgy, where scenes are omitted or lines moved between characters or archaic words and phrases modernized — though this film does all that too. I’m talking about re-writing Shakespeare.

I know, some of you traditionalists are probably spitting bile right now. But the kicker is, according to the press notes for the film, Fellowes and producer Ileen Maisel “wanted to give the modern audience a traditional, romantic version of the story.” (Setting aside the idea there is a version of Romeo and Juliet that is somehow not romantic…) The key word is “traditional” — and there’s the rub. While perhaps most would agree that an Italian setting and medieval costumes are acceptably traditional, only during the Restoration was it traditional to re-write the Bard. (And how did that work out for them? Quick show of hands. How many of you have seen The Enchanted Isle? How many The Tempest?)

But stay, there is a secondary goal the filmmakers had. Fellowes continues: “we also wanted to make it accessible and new.” So that’s why the text is changed, a determination “not to exclude” the “young audience”. Let us examine how they did.

How much of the text is changed? On a recent radio program, he estimated that only 20% of the text has changed, which — not having the play memorized myself — sounds about right.  But what a 20%. And most of the changes are on the order of simplifying elaborate metaphors… you know, the poetry.

Fellowes is a clever writer, and his alterations are in the spirit of the original play. Most of them will pass unnoticed by those who haven’t studied the text. A few of them are conspicuously out of tune, as when Romeo tells the Friar “intentions pave the road to Hell” or Juliet “if your heart like mine is full then tell the joy that ‘waits us this night.” The super-famous lines are left intact, near as I could gather, with all the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘wherefores’. I was baffled, frankly, by what didn’t change. Surely it offends modern sensibilities to have Juliet compared to the jewel that hangs on an Ethiope’s ear.  And why reproduce the extended, culturally outmoded wordplay about palmers and pilgrims but change “utters” to “issues” in the Apothecary’s line Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law / Is death to any he that utters them.?

In other words, Fellowes and his collaborators are like the second suitor in Merchant of Venice who chooses silver over gold. In compromising, they bungle both goals of being traditional and accessible. (For those keeping score at home, the Lead Casket option — jettisoning Shakespeare’s text altogether — was the correct answer. See West Side Story — or, more recently, Warm Bodies.)

As any Shakespeare-lover can tell you, accessibility is the job of the actors and the director. In the recent BBC/PBS version of Richard II (Part I of The Hollow Crown) actor Ben Whishaw and director Rupert Goold brilliantly brought forward the messiah complex of the title character through performance, camera angles, costumes and set decoration. You could watch the film with the sound off and understand it perfectly. (But you never would because dang, that Shakespeare guy could write!)

So how did Carlei, his crew, and his actors fare? They did okay. Douglas Booth (“Romeo”) is actually a decent actor, much better than you expect from a guy who looks like a male model. I liked him more than the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld (“Juliet”), who strikes me much the same way Clare Danes did: a bit gawky and uncomfortable with the language. (Sorry, but Olivia Hussey is still the only Juliet on film I believe Romeo would fall for instantly.) The chemistry between them was never allowed to build much erotic charge, since they were blocked to speak to each other and kiss almost immediately in every scene they shared together.

Of the supporting players, I would single out Damian Lewis (“Lord Capulet”), Natascha McElhone (“Lady Capulet”) and Kodi Smit-Mcphee (“Benvolio”) as particularly good. Some of the bigger names, like Paul Giamatti (“Friar Laurence”) and Stellan Skarsgard (“Prince Escalus”) I could take or leave. Lesley Manville does what she can with a “Nurse” who has most of her funny lines cut.

As far as Carlei & company’s handling of the visuals, I liked the handsome, detailed art direction of the film, but found the lighting over-wrought. It looks like a perfume commercial, or the cover of a bodice-ripper come to life. (This may be no accident, since the film was funded in part by the Swarovski family’s entertainment arm, they of the crystal curtain at the Academy Awards.) It wouldn’t have been so bad, but the score, by Abel Korzeniowski, insists on underlining every kiss with a swell of syrupy violins.

If you had any doubt that this was a movie to appeal to young women over young men, you need only look at the short and perfunctory sword fights, which display little in the way of imaginative choreography or visceral thrills. The love scenes are innocent and chaste, without a whiff of adolescent hormones.

The movie chooses one “tradition” that may irk purists, popularized, according to my research, by David Garrick’s 19th Century version of the play. In this version, Juliet awakens after Romeo has ingested the poison but before he has died. Thus the lovers are allowed to share a final moment before they shuffle off their mortal coils. This might’ve even seemed like an innovation — if we hadn’t just seen it in the Baz Luhrmann/Craig Pearce version.

Of all the adjustments, I was not a fan of how the film removed Shakespeare’s ironies surrounding Friar John’s inability to deliver Friar Laurence’s letter and instead replaced it with a bit of PR for the church.  I can only guess the filmmakers felt a mention of the plague didn’t fit in their glossy, romantic world.

But, at the end of the day, this story — which was itself adapted by Shakespeare from a centuries-old tradition — can withstand much more than a few well-intentioned-but-misguided filmmakers have thrown at it (Cf. Gnomeo & Juliet which does the story with garden gnomes, Elton John songs and a happy ending). Even in my cynical Los Angeles press screening, there were a few tears at the end. (Not mine, I only cry tears that are earned. And also at most Nic Cage performances.)

I try to judge filmmakers by their own goals. In my opinion, this film’s approach does not find the right balance of “traditional” and “accessible” — but do you, fellow Shakespeare geeks, disagree? Or are those goals simply mutually exclusive? And what would a faithful version consist of? Most film versions of the story, including Zeffirelli’s, have only used one third of the lines Shakespeare wrote. Will we ever see a film version that, like Branagh’s Hamlet, seeks to do justice to a complete text? I am eagerly awaiting the next generation’s answers.

Review : Two Gentlemen of Boston Common (Part 2)

…ok, where was I?

It’s past 9pm on Friday night.  We’re wet, having sat in the rain for 45 minutes waiting for the show to start.  Stephen Maler, the director, comes out to tell us that while he may have said for years that every audience is the best audience ever, seriously, *we* are the best audience ever.

Enter Kennedy, the local radio show host who is now apparently going to be a regular because she was here last year as well?  She says, “Last year I told a knock knock joke, and it went over maybe 50-50…”

Yeah, I remember, because IT WAS MY JOKE YOU TOLD.  I wondered what jokes she’d tell this year when she promised two new ones.

New?  She went with “prose before hoes” and Shakespeare not being able get a drink at the pub because “he’s Bard.”  I wish she’d kept googling, she could have come up with something better that Bardfilm or I had written!

Once again I watch as she leaves the stage thinking that I might chase her down and introduce myself, but she disappears.

Two Gents is pretty unknown to anybody who’s not a Shakespeare fan, so I’ve had to summarize it for wife, friends, coworkers and whoever else asked me what I was doing for the weekend.  Keep in mind that the last time I read it was maybe 20 years ago, so I’m not too big on the details as well.  Here’s what I’ve been telling people:

Ok, Proteus and Valentine are best friends in Verona.  Proteus is in love with Julia.  Valentine heads off to Milan, where he falls in love with Sylvia.  Proteus is sent off to Milan as well for some reason, where he too falls in love with Sylvia (promptly leaving Julia in the dust).  Julia, meanwhile, dresses up like a boy to follow Proteus to Milan.  Proteus decides that he can get Sylvia all for himself if he screws over Valentine to the Duke.  This plan works, Valentine is banished and ends up leading a band of outlaws.  Proteus meanwhile thinks he’ll have Sylvia all to himself, but she’s still into Valentine so she runs away, and promptly gets captured by the outlaws.  Well, Proteus rescues her from the outlaws and when she’s not appropriately appreciative enough he says that he’ll just have his way with her regardless, causing Valentine to come to her rescue.  Proteus then apologizes for his bad behavior, and his best pal Valentine immediately forgive him and says oh you can have Sylvia.  But Sylvia reminds Proteus of his love for Julia, Julia unveils that she’s been hanging out with them dressed as a boy, and Proteus decides to go back with her.  The Duke comes in, everybody’s forgiven (including the outlaws), and we end on the promise of a double wedding just like always.  Oh, and there’s a dog.  The dog’s supposed to be funny.

The set is supposed to be some sort of Las Vegas / nightclub thing, with plenty of singing and showgirls dancing.  The actual characters break into song, it’s not like a background track.  Julia sings “Fever”, Proteus sings “Witchcraft,” that kind of thing.  The back wall is decorated with neon nightclub signs, and the one labelled “Hermione’s Place” is very surreal to me, I try to remember if there’s a Hermione in this play.

Proteus (left) bids farewell to Valentine.

I tried to take pictures this year since we were close enough, but between the rain and the distance and the darkness they didn’t come out great.  Hopefully you at least get the idea of what we were seeing.

The play starts with Proteus and Valentine saying their farewells as Valentine is off to see the world, while Proteus will stay home with Julia.  It’s only a matter of minutes before I lean over to my wife, rub her arm, and whisper, “Shakespeare makes me so very happy. Thanks for staying!”  I couldn’t even tell you what they were saying at that point, but it didn’t matter, you know?  There’s that magic spell that comes with hearing a Shakespeare play, outside under the stars, and you experience bliss.  It’s been almost 4  hours since we left the house to get here, but the words start flowing, and all that is erased, and it is totally worth it, just like every year.

I don’t really want to recap the entire show, mostly because it’s not up any more so it’s not like anybody’s going to rush down to see it.  But also because I just didn’t love it.  Here’s my highlights:

* They kept breaking character and playing to the audience, like pointing and winking whenever somebody laughed particularly loudly or “Woo!”ed at a joke.  The Duke was shown at one point playing golf, and after a particularly bad drive he’d mutter “son of a bitch…”  After intermission when Speed and Launce were doing some sort of vaudevillian schtick, Launce looks at the audience after a flopped joke, holds up a paper and says, “You know who wrote that joke?  WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.  That one killed during the plague!  If you want to complain email williamshakespeare at bard of avon dot com.”  <beat>  “dot org.”     That sort of thing.  It was like they didn’t have enough faith in the material.  And maybe that’s an accurate assumption to make, but then why pick this play?

Julia (seated) argues with Lucetta over a certain letter.

* There’s too much letter writing in this play, and it rapidly confused my wife (well, and me too).  Speed, who works for Valentine, brought Proteus’ letter to Julia?  But then Lucetta has the letter, and Julia tears it up, only to later try putting the pieces back together?  Sylvia has Valentine write a letter to some imaginary friend, then tells him it’s not good enough, gives it back to him, tells him to write another one, and give it to himself?  I knew the general plot of who loved who, but the letters lost me.

* The only characters that seem to get any stage time are Proteus and Julia (separately).  And Proteus is a real dick.  Seriously.  Pardon my language but that’s the best word to use.  He gives a big speech about how, to get Sylvia, he has to screw over both Julia and Valentine.  Then goes ahead and does it.  Then later he has to get Thurio (to whom Sylvia is betrothed) out of the picture.  It’s quite clear that Sylvia has no interest in him, but that doesn’t stop him.  This actually leads us to the famous “near rape”(?) scene.  They’ve done a good job of showing Sylvia escaping the outlaws, only to ultimately be captured.  But when Proteus arrives to rescue her, she then runs from him the same way she ran from the outlaws.  So he delivers his “I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arms’ end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love,–force ye.” line and goes in for what can best be described as an aggressive hug, like something out of a 1950’s movie where you have to show the bad guy doing bad things but still keep it clean.  No matter, though, because Valentine shows up and we have a quick fight scene to end Proteus’ evil ways. 

Our two clowns, Launce and Speed, with Crab the dog.

* What’s the dog supposed to do?  All our did was look cute.  When Launce comes out and says “I have a dog…” people cheered in anticipation.  So out comes a cute dog, who does little more than wag his (her?) tail and eat treats.  Launce does his whole routine about his mother and father as shoes, and that probably could have gotten more laughs (“No, the left shoe is my mother, it has the worser sole.”  Come on, that’s funny!)  Is the whole joke that the dog just sits there and says nothing?
* The best scene, and I’m not even sure where it appears in the script, is when Sylvia sits down with Julia (dressed as a boy) to talk about Proteus’ love for “her”.  That alone added more depth to both characters than anything else I saw.  Now we can understand why Sylvia hates Proteus – she knows how quickly he turned on his former love so she knows what kind of man she is. And we get to understand why Julia would stay next to Proteus even though, right in front of her face, he’s forswearing her and proclaiming his love for another woman.
* This leads to what I thought was the funniest scene, and one of the few times I’ll forgive them for the random “extra” bits:


How! let me see:
Why, this is the ring I gave to Julia.


O, cry you mercy, sir, I have mistook:
This is the ring you sent to Silvia.


But how camest thou by this ring? At my depart
I gave this unto Julia.


And Julia herself did give it me;
And Julia herself hath brought it hither. <pause, as all stare at her confused>  REALLY?!  <takes off her cap, shakes out her hair>


 How! Julia!

Overall I come away with the same thought I went into it – it’s not that great of a play.  There aren’t many characters to appreciate (except the scorned Julia), and everybody seems pretty stupid and unsympathetic (what with the whole “Oh, you just tried to rape Sylvia, but you apologized, so you can have Sylvia” sort of thing going on).  The clowns’ jokes are all “cheap pops” that get a laugh here and there but I didn’t see anybody rolling in the aisles.

Over the weekend as we told the story of how hard it was to go see the show, and people asked why we even bother, I took the easy path – I explained that Shakespeare’s plays are like my bucket list, and I’d not seen this one so even if it’s not a great one I still need to see it.  The real reason, of course, is back a few paragraphs and happened within the first five minutes of the play.

Shakespeare makes me so very happy.