Wait You What? Why? [ A Geeklet Story ]

It feels weird still telling geeklet stories when one of the geeklets is in college, but traditions must be followed! It’s fascinating to look at how the conversations and stories have evolved over the years.

So my daughter’s off to college (second year, actually) and last night she got to hang out with the Shakespeare club. Naturally, I had to speak with her this morning and get the scoop.

“We actually didn’t talk much about Shakespeare,” she told me. “It was a lot more getting to know each other stuff. Oh, but I did learn, the production this year is Hamlet.”

I’m of two minds. “Really?” I start with, “Of all the plays? What are they going to say about Hamlet that hasn’t been said a million times already?” But, reconsidering, “If you want to get immersed in Shakespeare, Hamlet’s going to be one of the best choices. Sometimes they’ll go off and do a Comedy of Errors or a Two Gentlemen of Verona or something, but all you get out of those is the laughs. Something like a Hamlet is where you can really spend all the time getting into the details of how you’re going to tell it, and why.”

We talk briefly about “gender-bent” productions and the difference between “a woman playing Hamlet” and “playing Hamlet as a woman.”

“I’ll send you resources,” I continue. “Sarah Bernhardt famously played Hamlet back in the 1800s. There’s even video.”

The conversation continues, and then she drops a bomb on me. “Last night I was reading Taming of the Shrew, and that ending is just …”

“Hold on,” I say, “Pause. Back up. You were doing what?”

“Reading Taming of the Shrew?”

“Before or after you met with the Shakespeare club? Something came up in conversation?”

“No, before.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to refresh myself on the story.”

I’m momentarily speechless, a rare event in this Shakespeare-related universe. “You’re telling me that, of your own accord, you said hey I think I’ll catch up on my Shakespeare and decided to re-read Shrew?”

“Well, yeah. Not the whole thing, not in one night. Mostly the ending.”

We then talk so long about the ending of that one, the ending of Midsummer, the ending of Merchant, that I eventually have to go to a meeting and put a halt to the conversation.

I think it was probably fourteen years ago? That I was tucking in a cute little curly-headed five-year-old girl who needed a bedtime story and I thought, “What the heck, never too young to learn about Shakespeare.”

Look how far we’ve come. I can’t wait to see what comes next. But I tell you right now, documented for the record, that if any of my kids end up on a stage delivering lines, I’m not sure my heart will be able to take it.

Ok, Anybody Out There Know How To Draw?

I had an idea for a new merchandise design – a very simple “All the World’s a Stage” font with a prominent display of the iconic tragedy/comedy theatre masks in some nice bright colors.

There’s about a zillion t-shirts out there that just show the quote, and maybe throw some clip art on it. I thought it would be fun to do something with actual original artwork. Something unique that someone else can’t easily rip off.

And, I thought, where better to get such artwork but an audience of Shakespeare geeks? I can’t draw. My visual skills are limited to taking other images and playing with them in photoshop until they get some interesting (eh) twist.

I’m wondering if there’s somebody out there who might be able to draw something like that for me? I’m putting it out there, it’s something I want to put on merchandise. I’m happy to send you a t-shirt (or coffee mug or tote bag or whatever you pick) as payment, if you like. And I’ll credit you accordingly, both in a specific blog post thank you as well as in the actual product description (to the extent I am able).

You know the image I’m talking about, right? Something like this…

But, you know, more interesting. The two should overlap a little. Definitely want the ribbon/string, it’ll give another element to color. The faces can have more personality, but should retain that minimalist, iconic representation so it’s more about the image as a whole and not about looking at the details of each individual mask. Personally I like big black outlines emphasizing the image, as if it could easily be represented as a pure line drawing – but that’s just my personal style, and like I said, I’m not the one drawing it. But it’s got to be something that really pops on merchandise and separates itself from background colors.

Any takers? I know I’m probably asking a lot but you never know unless you ask,maybe there’s some folks out there that love doing stuff exactly like this.

Thanks in advance! I look forward to seeing what you come up with! Maybe we can have a contest 🙂

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare presents The Tempest on Boston Common

We’re baaaaacccckkk!

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

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

Stuff I Loved

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

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

Ariel magically guides Ferdinand toward Miranda.

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

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

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

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

Stuff I Didn’t Love

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

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

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

Prospero breaks his staff.

Other Things

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

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

Ariel’s helper spirits entrance Miranda.

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

Conclusion

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

When You Have No Mind’s Eye

Not how I would have pictured him, but that’s not saying much.

I’ve long been fascinated with “visualization,” mostly because I discovered that I can’t do it. You know that thing when someone says, “Close your eyes. Picture yourself standing on a beach. A woman approaches, carrying a box…?” I have no picture in my mind. I can’t tell you whether there’s other people in the scene, or how old the woman is or what she looks like, or the color or size of the box. It’s more like my brain just establishes the connected concepts and says, “Ok, yup, on the beach, woman carrying a box. Next?”

I learned in college that people actually *do* see a picture in their head. Maybe you, dear reader, are one of them (you probably are). Consider the scene I described. What does the woman look like? What color is the box? Are there other people around? What’s the sky like? You probably have answers to all of those things.

My kids recently taught me the word “aphantasia” to describe this. They’re fascinated with it. “You have no mind’s eye!” they’ll tell me, astonished. Whether they realize they’re borrowing from Hamlet, I’m not sure, but I’ll take it. When we talk about math I’m astonished that they tell me they literally visualize numbers lining up in columns, and when they say things like “carry the 1” they really see the 1 moving over to the next column. I get none of that. Numbers to me are just quantities, they have no visual component. They can’t imagine it working like that.

This isn’t just a random rant about the inner workings on my brain. I’m wondering whether or not it’s precisely because of aphantasia that I’m interested in theatre, and Shakespeare specifically. See, I don’t know or care about how anything looks. I have no picture of Hamlet or Ophelia or Gertrude. People talk about “a director’s vision” and I think, “Nope, I could never be a director.” All I have, and all I care about, is the words. So the words are 99% of the experience for me, and the fact that every production of the play brings forth a new visual interpretation just adds to it.

Audio is excellent, too, by the way. This is not a “read only” type of thing. I’m perfectly happy to have the words acted out for me, to put all the emphasis in the right place. But literally at no point do I picture a snivelly little hunched Claudius or a big fat Claudius. He is entirely defined for me by the words that come out of his mouth, which are what define him in relation to the other characters. So when someone else puts a visual to him and I get to see Claudius? I never, ever think, “That’s not how I pictured him.” I almost always think, “Ok, interesting, let’s see how well the visual connects to the words.”

Ok, that’s it for a Sunday night. Just something I’m thinking about, with no pictures.

Among His Private Friends

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

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

Among His Private Friends

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

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