Lear’s Shadow


A rehearsal room, dark. Enter JACK through the curtains, directly from outside as we see cars driving past.  He rolls a single, lit incandescent lamp to center, and opens the curtains. We see folding tables on which sit copies of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  JACK picks one up and starts swearing.

Enter a younger man, STEPHEN, on the phone and holding a neck brace. He’s clearly been looking for JACK and is relieved to find him.

Thus opens Lear’s Shadow, written and directed by Brian Elerding, which I had the pleasure of watching yesterday at Mr. Elerding’s invitation.

We quickly learn that something bad has happened, though what we do not yet know. Jack is bruised, Stephen is trying to get him back into the neck brace, so those are some obvious clues. More telling, however, is that Jack – our director – seems to have no real idea where or when he is. He doesn’t know what play they’re rehearsing (hence his anger at seeing Romeo and Juliet scripts) or why no one else has shown up for rehearsal.

Stephen’s job is to keep Jack talking until Rachel (who Stephen was speaking with on the phone) can bring the car around. They reminisce about other plays they’ve done together, before landing on King Lear.  Jack keeps re-realizing that the scripts are wrong, and doesn’t know the date. Stephen takes it upon himself to walk through the play with Jack.

For the next hour the two debate the finer details of Lear – what scenes and lines can be cut, how to deliver certain lines, where to “start” so you have “somewhere to go”.  If you love being a fly on the wall during conversations like this (as I do) you’re going to greatly enjoy this. I do not fancy myself an actor, never have, so I like to watch them work at their craft without trying to put myself in their place.

Of course none of this is random, we’ve got a man who has lost his memory and has clearly had some tragedy befall him doing what amounts to a one man show about a man who has lost his memory upon which many tragedies fall. It’s a reminder that while King Lear may have been written five hundred years ago it could also have happened yesterday.

Though I’m watching this as a movie it reminds me of going to theatre back when I was a younger man. It’s a bare stage two man show, just dialogue, no real plot to speak of other than toward the ultimate answer to the “What happened?” question (which we may or may not receive).

If you believe that Shakespeare makes life better, even when it brings tears rather than laughter, then of course you’re going to like this. It’s very reminiscent of when Slings & Arrows did Lear, a connection the director and I already spoke of.  “There’s no way I wasn’t influenced by Slings & Arrows,” he wrote.  That’s intended as high praise.  I’m not saying “This is trying to be Slings & Arrows,” I’m saying, “I’d watch an entire season of this like I’d watch a season of Slings & Arrows.”




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Not So Great Shakespearean Deaths (The Game)

When I put the Great Shakespearean Deaths Card Game on my Shakespeare Gift Guide this year, I jokingly put it in the “Stuff I Want” category.  Well god bless my mom who saw that post and thought, “Hurray, my son published his Christmas list!” and immediately bought it for me.

Apparently it’s quite a popular choice this year, as a quick Twitter poll showed at least half a dozen people who could now include it in their stash as well.

The problem is, it’s not a good game.  You have no idea how disappointed I am to say that, but it’s only reasonable, as I’m disappointed in the game.

Each card represents a character death, explaining that death briefly, offering last words where the character had some. It also rates the death on a number of scales – gore, piteousness, fairness, speed of death, and a few others.  So far so good, a chance for people unfamiliar with any deaths other than Romeo, Juliet and Hamlet to learn about the lesser known characters like Enobarbus or “the fly” from Titus Andronicus (seriously? seriously).

If I understood the directions correctly – they’re written in a weird, pidgin-Shakespearean – everybody gets a face-down hand of cards, and can only play their top card at any time. When it’s your turn, you look at your top card, then pick a scale, presumably based on which one is best for that card. Whoever has the high score for that scale (normally you, since you’d pick your best scoring chance), you get the other players cards. If there’s a tie, those stay in the middle and you play again.  It’s basically “War”, the card game.  There’s no real strategy involved. Got a ten? Pick that one.

Has anybody else played it? Did I misunderstand anything?

My kids were bored almost immediately and clearly played only so I wouldn’t be sad that my Christmas gift was boring.  I meanwhile started thinking of ways to make it more interesting.  Here’s a few that we came up with:

  • Pick the category before you look at your top card.  That makes it entirely random, but at least you don’t just keep giving your cards to whoever had a ten for Gore and Brutality.
  • Play two-factor.  Choose two attributes (by dice roll if that’s easier), and you have to maximize your score across both.  So your ten coupled with a two isn’t going to beat somebody else’s six and seven.
  • Everybody gets to look at their cards, but at each turn roll a die to randomly determine which attribute will be played. That way you at least have to decide which card to play.
  • Everybody gets a hand of six cards. Your goal is to maximize your score by playing one card per attribute. For your turn you play it like Go Fish in reverse, offering up a card to see if anybody wants to trade.  For example say you’ve already got Richard III as a 10 in Last Words.  But you’re also carrying Hamlet, and you really need somebody with a better Speed of Death score.  So you’d say, “Does anybody need Hamlet?” without specifying his numbers – people have to learn who the good cards are.  If more than one person wants him, they can make their case – “I’ll trade you a Young Macduff” – and you decide who to trade with.  When everybody’s happy with their hand and either doesn’t want to trade or can’t find someone to trade with, total up your scores.
  • Play by poker rules.  Deal out five cards, try to match up the plays – “I’ve got a full house, three of Hamlet and a pair of Richard III.”

Those are just some ideas, some literally off the top of my head as I write this post.  There aren’t enough cards to play some of the games I thought of.  You’ll quickly be surprised with who is – and isn’t – in the deck, as well as how they’re graded.  This is covered in the rules, and there’s even a blank card to add your own.  A nice idea, but I would have preferred that they just make all the deaths.  It’s been popularized in posters and infographics, it’s not really a hard data point to get.  If there’s too many you could start lumping them together (like “Macduff’s Family”).


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Review : Deadpool Meets Shakespeare

I first spotted the Deadpool / Shakespeare crossover in July 2016 and wrote that I was “cautiously optimistic”.  I wrote that I’m not a fan of the current trend of just writing things in iambic pentameter and calling it “Shakespearean”, nor do I appreciate the Kill Shakespeare technique of just having the characters kill each other. I suggested in my original post that while I was afraid of both of those things, I was still the picture of “wishful thinking”, because what if I’m wrong?

I’m not wrong.

Took me forever to find this.  I would periodically visit the local comic shops, flipping through the stacks and sometimes asking where I might find it. My mom even got me a gift card to the local Newbury Comics at my suggestion because I knew I’d have something to buy.

Never found it. That card just burned a hole in my pocket for the better part of a year until relatively recently (month or two ago?) when I finally asked a clerk whether anybody had it, and where I might find it. Turns out another store in Boston supposedly had it.  I file that knowledge. But then, a week or two later, we find ourselves in Boston.  Next thing you know I’m walking out of the store with Deadpool #7 : Deadpool Does Shakespeare. This is actually a reprint of the original, but hey, I’ll take it. This is the one with Deadpool dressed as Cupid on the cover, in case you’ve ever spotted it in the wild.

It is … about what I expected. It’s Deadpool after all, the “merc with the mouth”.  If you’re not familiar with the comic (or the movie), he’s famous for breaking the fourth wall and basically behaving as if he knows he’s in a comic book.  So he opens with something straight out of a PG-13 Twelfth Night: “What country, friends, is this? And what the f%&*???”

And so it goes. He meets Shakespeare, and kills him. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears, first Deadpool assumes that it’s Christmas, and then ponders whether they are in a galaxy far, far away (Ian Doescher, who wrote this one, also wrote the Star Wars crossover books).

It then turns into Kill Shakespeare, as our hero meets a steady stream of Shakespeare’s characters, all of whom claim to want to kill someone else, and who try to convince him that they’re the good guy and he should help them kill the bad guy.  All in some syllable-counting iambic pentameter.

I’m glad to add it to my collection, but there’s not much else I can say about it. It’s exactly what I thought it was going to be.



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Review : Will #10 (Series Finale)

I have to admit, now that we know it’s cancelled, I’m disappointed.  I thought there was a lot wrong with it, but seeing Shakespeare and his fellows on tv every week was kind of exciting.  I know more people are sitting down to watch Game of Thrones every week but I enjoyed having a show of my own to anticipate.

This will be something of a live blog as I watch.  I DVR’d it last night but it’s live to me 🙂  Total spoilers will abound, so beware.

Weird that last week’s episode ends with Will running through town, but now he’s walking. Step it up, man! You’re girlfriend’s getting choked out.

I don’t love how Walsingham became an important character with just two episodes left. You can’t just drop a name like that and expect it to mean anything without a chance to learn about the character.

Suddenly Topcliffe’s enforcer (Justice Young?) is a real human, with a conscience? Again, would have been nice to learn more about this character. Holy…?! Just as I write that he kills the jailer as a cover story for letting Will escape with Alice.  Yikes.

It’s weird to watch this and have context for the real story.  The real Topcliffe did eventually get Southwell, and does live until old age.  So I am not expecting him to get any sort of comeuppance in this episode.  But I still want to see how it plays out.

Bizarre that Will can carry a nearly dead Alice around the streets and literally nobody turns their head to look at him.

Will ends up at Amelia Bassano’s house (makes sense) so her personal physician can take care of Alice (with leeches, of course).  This makes everything all better, and soon Will takes her home.

So, to be clear — in the time Topcliffe had her, he never bothered to get her name? He doesn’t immediately head to her house?  Not a great interrogator, it seems.

Now the whole Burbage family knows about Alice and Will, and worse, that he’s a Catholic. So this is what the whole series has been about, even calling back the “Topcliffe was looking for a man with a cut on his hand” from the first episode.  I just don’t feel like it’s built properly to these kinds of reveals. Nobody’s really explained how Richard III is going to be so screamingly obvious to everyone in the theatre (the groundlings are not known for their post graduate degrees, you know) that it’s a scathing satire of Topcliffe.

Watching Will explain to Richard that he’s in love with Alice is oddly reminiscent of Chandler trying to explain to Ross that he loves Monica.  They go from best friends to “that’s my sister!” *punch* But then five minutes later they’re besties again.

Wait, Marlowe’s still in this?  We don’t have time for Marlowe.  Now there’s going to be no resolution to his story at all, I’m afraid.

Hunsdon? They have to convince Hunsdon? Who is Hunsdon?  Is he the one that they did Midsummer for?  I feel like I’ve lost a lot of these characters’ significance.  (Yes, Lord Hunsdon is Henry Carey, who was with Amelia Bassano, and a real character from history.)

I also just realized that the “Tommy” that Marlowe keeps hanging around with is Thomas Walsingham, son of Sir Francis.  The real Marlowe definitely did have a relationship with the real Thomas Walsingham. Now that makes sense, how Marlowe was able to call upon him so quickly last week.

Marlowe finally tells the story of who the old guy was in the bed a few weeks ago – Barrett Emerson.  Unfortunately this appears to be a fictional character.  There’s some theory that perhaps he’s modeled on Lord Strange, but that’s all I can find.

Marlowe gets lots of screen time in this episode but now it just feels wasted, knowing that we’ll never get to really explore anything with it.

…ok, wait, are you kidding?  Next up is a scene of Southwell and his followers self-flagellating (i.e. whipping themselves) while chanting in Latin.  That looks like something straight out of a Dan Brown DaVinci Code novel, and is a ridiculous plot twist.  Was their intent to make Southwell look like a nut? He’s been turned into the villain the last few episodes, but now he looks crazy.

Here we go, time for the play. I’m actually surprised that it took me this long to see this whole plot device as a Hamlet thing, the whole “catch the conscience of the king” and what not.  I’ve been looking too closely at the source material and not the bigger picture.  Shame on me.

The play is good. I like how Richard steps up to play the lead, I wish we could have seen him in some more of the good stuff.  The ending, I won’t spoil. I’ll just say that I approve of how it all goes down. A bit anti-climactic, just kind of “Will the plan work?  Ok, yup it worked with no complications at all.”


Well I guess that’s it.  Alice and Will get something of a Shakespeare in Love ending, which is really kind of a cop-out.  Maybe if there’d been a season 2 they would have done something with it, but now we’ll never know.  Marlowe never comes of anything, other than to offer an Elizabethan “Swive you, Shakespeare”.  Nothing ever comes of Moll and Richard.  Topcliffe is last seen playing with his torture instruments as if he’s going to do something to himself, with no payoff.  Marlow asks Shakespeare what he’s going to do next, and I’m dying for him to drop a hint about a big play – remember earlier in the season when he mentioned Falstaff? And how he was going to write the greatest plays man has ever known?  Instead he just shakes his head and says nothing.  That might be the most painful part of the whole thing. If he’d described his idea for Hamlet or something it would have been perfect.

I hope it’s generally looked upon as “Shakespeare on prime time can work.”  Probably not, but we can always hope.


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Review : The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

As a geek in the traditional (i.e. nerdy) sense of the word I have long been a huge fan of Neal Stephenson’s work.  Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, REAMDE, Anathem, Seveneves – all highly recommended.

So when I heard that he was doing a time travel story about Elizabethan England?  I did something I don’t usually do, I went ahead and got the hardcover.

Should have waited. I think this is the first Stephenson book that I can’t say I recommend. Most of the time, like with Seveneves or Anathem, I’ll ask, “Are you up for the challenge?”  Not here, not by a long shot.

Let’s get something out of the way. Shakespeare’s not in this. They do have a visit to Elizabethan England and do meet Richard Burbage and have what I’ll admit is an amusing scene there.  But that’s it.  There’s some discussion by others about Shakespeare’s work, but that’s it.  There’s a bit about the Irish that’s worth another blog post, coming soon. So if, like me, you’re interested in this book for the Shakespeare content? Save your money. There isn’t enough.

The rest of the book isn’t up to Stephenson’s standard.  He spends most of his time amusing himself with sophomoric pokes at bureaucracy and government, with various side trip opportunities to describe sexual stuff (like what happens when you put an 1800s prostitute and a Viking warrior in the same room together) that has nothing to do with the plot.  He seems so entertained by his own words that he forgot to write a compelling story.

Who knows, maybe I’m just so thrown off by the lack of Shakespeare that I’m being unnecessarily hard on this one. When I described it to coworkers they said, “Sounds entertaining despite itself.”  And it was, I’ll give it that. But I don’t go through these books (especially in hardcover!) just to be entertained. I want to get something out of it.  I don’t know what I got out of this other than temporary amusement.


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Review : Will #9

Ok we’re heading toward a big finish and lots of plots are moving forward.

Richard Burbage is a changed man after coming out of the plague house. He’s showing more attention to Moll, which is pleasant. Shakespeare has written Richard III for him, but for some reason his father James wants to play the role (because “I made this theatre and I’ll play any role I want.”).  There’s actually a nice father/son moment between the two where Richard says, “You also made me, so when I play the role, it’ll be you playing the role as well.”

Alice Burbage has fallen under the spell of Southwell, agreeing not only to be baptized but also to carry Southwell’s book to … wherever it is that it needs to go.

This doesn’t go well after Marcus narcs on them to Topcliffe in an attempt to save his son.  Southwell and his people have no time for this, dispatching Marcus when he tries to prevent Southwell from escaping, and then leaving Alice behind to be captured.  Marlowe is there, however, and won’t stand for it. He brings Sir Francis Walsingham in (I kept thinking it was Bacon, to be honest), just before Alice can be whipped and tortured.  This however doesn’t stop Topcliffe from beating her (after everyone’s left them alone), and potentially choking her to death.  I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen.  I don’t know the real Alice Burbage’s story, so it’s quite possible that she dies in this. I’m curious.

There’s some Richard III content in this one as they teach Presto (the street urchin) to play the role of Prince Edward.  Honestly I wish I knew more about the play. I can’t recognize it from the quotes, other than the obvious ones.

Next week is the final episode. I have no idea if we’ll get another season. I have no idea what the ratings have been.  I guess I’ve liked it, once we got past the ridiculous sex and violence. I’ve watched every episode.  It’ll be a shame when it’s over.


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Review : Will #8

Ok, after a great episode that was weak on sex and violence we’re back with blood flying.  This one opens up not just with a disembowelling but a decapitation. Awesome. This time it’s somebody we know – the fat guy from a few previous episodes who was captured and tortured. And this time we see Southwell in the audience praying for his soul.  This does not sit well with Marcus, whose son was busted by Topcliffe last week.

I don’t get most of this episode. There’s very little Shakespeare in it.  Their friend Autolycus – who is part of the storyline so infrequently that I would forget his name were it not for the reference to the text – has a new girlfriend.  Which ends up with him getting plague.  How that happens? I don’t know.


But he ends up in a plague house, which basically means he’s dead.  But a twist!  Burbage can’t let him go alone, so agrees to be boarded up in a plague house with him.  What? Did that actually happen? We know he’s not going to die, so I’m not sure what the writers are getting at with this little side trip.

Shakespeare has an idea – he’s going to write a story exposing the Queen’s torturer Topcliffe.  That play? Richard III.

Shakespeare learns that Southwell now has Alice Burbage on his side as well, which gets them (Shakespeare and Southwell) into an argument since Shakespeare sees it as putting Alice in harm’s way, while Southwell is


starting to be shown as a bit of a nut who cares only about people’s eternal spirit and is thus not troubled by people being captured and tortured.

Best line of the night? Alice says that Shakespeare’s offering nothing of value to the world because who cares about Henry VI Parts 1, 2, 3. He swears that he is working on a play of such greatness… to which she responds, “What, part 4? Does it have a funny dog?”  Ouch.

Marlowe is still his typical atheist self. Having failed to meet the devil he

wants to see Southwell, to meet god. We know how that’s going to go.

It’s clear that the story is racing toward some conclusions, but that also means focusing on the story that they’ve been telling, rather than Shakespeare’s biography. So you know how I’m going to feel about that.  I get it, I get why it’s necessary. I’m just not all that interested in it.  An episode like this is in the background while I do other things.

Let’s see what the next episode has for us!  There’s only ten I’m told, so whatever’s going to happen is going to happen soon.

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Will #7 : A Midsummer Night’s Deux Ex Machina!


Hurray! Less sex and violence!

You don’t hear that very often. But we finally get an episode that doesn’t have gratuitous people running around naked, and instead focuses on the Shakespeare. There’s a little violence, sure, but nothing like what we’ve seen before.

Last week ended with Presto setting the theatre on fire after his sister died.  At first this just made me hate him even more, because I don’t care how angry he is, why is he taking it out on them? What did they do?  But this week we actually get some closure on that, as he confides in Shakespeare that he was intending to just stay there and kill himself, but couldn’t go through with it.

The plot, admittedly, is a little thin.  The theatre was already in financial trouble, and now that it’s half burned to the ground, Burbage sees no choice to but to sell.  Shakespeare, meanwhile, has a plan. He goes straight to Emilia Bassano, our Dark Lady.

I like this character. Not only is she smart enough to see through Burbage a few weeks ago and say, “I want to talk to whoever actually wrote this sonnet,” but two seconds after meeting Alice Burbage she says, “Oh, that’s who you wrote that sonnet for.” She’s very smart. But she doesn’t come across as an emasculating presence like so often happens in these situations, where the men end up like clowns who can’t figure out the solution to a problem and need the woman to come to the rescue.  In fact she informs him that she doesn’t have any money of her own to help him, so he can forget that idea.

However, while she doesn’t have any money of her own, her friends do.  We meet a new character (whose name I literally cannot remember and who is not listed in the IMDB page) who requests a special performance so he can win the hand of his lady.  The play?  A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Against the backdrop of the most recognizable play they’ve done this far, the characters all fall into place.  Shakespeare wanders around trying to think of great things to say about love. Emilia feeds him ideas, without just writing it for him.  Young Burbage complains that he has to play a fairy and has to have his ego stroked by Moll, who is madly in love with him but he doesn’t see it. Kemp gets to act his ass off as Bottom.  See what I did there? 🙂

The rest resolves as expected, a little too easily – cut to Burbage about to hand over the keys to his competitor, only to have Shakespeare and the gang burst onto the scene, tossing a bag of coins up on the stage to complete the transaction.  Because this is movie economics, that one transaction generated the exact amount of money that Burbage needed.  Nobody ever seems to ask for more, you know, for cushion.  They still have expenses the next day too, you know.

Should we check in with Marlowe? I need his story to get a little better. He enlists the aid of his dark friends again because he wants to see the devil.  I find this ridiculous. The major plotline of this show is that to be a Catholic is punishable by imprisonment and torture, and there’s a small army raiding houses all over town looking for any kind of evidence.  But Marlowe walks up to a guy and says, “Show me the devil” and the next thing you know they’re having a pagan sacrifice.  Sure, why not?

This, of course, leads to the obligatory “sell my soul” reference which gives him the idea for Dr. Faustus. Ok.  Keep it moving.  Once upon a time this was supposed to be about some sort of competition between Marlowe and Shakespeare for who is the greatest playwright, and Marlowe’s written nothing for all seven episodes of the show.

There’s the usual advancement of story with the other characters as well – Southwell’s printing house is raided, but he takes Alice to a baptism.  Presto tries killing Topcliffe again but Shakespeare saves him, again.  Apparently they’re finally friends now.

I liked a lot about this episode – mostly because it was about Shakespeare and crew and not about random sex and violence. But I hate that it wrapped up so nicely. Bardfilm is the one that called it a Deux Ex Machina, but I think he’s right.  “We need money.”  “Hey, here’s this new guy that’s willing to give us the money we need.”  “Let’s put on a show!” It’s like the plot device of every sitcom in the 1970s.

Everything feels like it’s building toward something, which is good. I guess they’ve got 10 episodes.  I’m wondering how far we get, and what resolves and what’s left open.  Mostly I’m wondering if the series will do well enough to merit a season two.  I even told my wife the other night, “I have to go watch my Shakespeare show.  In all the years you’ve known me when have I been able to say that?  Shakespeare is on tv every week.  That is so many kinds of awesome.” I don’t want it to end.



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Will #6: Dark Lady! Blackfriars! Sonnet 29!

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere! I’ve often said that I’m in it for the Shakespeare, and tolerating all the other bits.  Tonight, and I realize I’m a day behind, I’m happy.

We open with Shakespeare’s family still in London with him, and it’s not long before Hamnet is lost in the crowd. Just like last week they play “family” well, with the kids pointing at everything in every direction, wanting to buy everything they see, the parents having to slap hands away and say no. I like Shakespeare as family man – although the more they do it, the more plain it looks that he is too young to be father to these children.

There’s soon a riot as the pro-Catholics start handing out literature and the fighting begins.  Enter the Queen’s guard who just start….stabbing people indiscriminately.  There’s literal blood spraying everywhere.  This I guess is the reminder that we’re trying to be Game of Thrones. We get it already. This is a violent time.  Move on.

Shakespeare’s trying to come up with his next play, and nobody likes his idea for the sequel to Henry VI, so Alice convinces him that he should write the prequel. Meanwhile the flippin’ Dark Lady is introduced! Of course “Big Dick” Burbage wants her, and commissions a sonnet from Shakespeare to woo her. For some reason Shakespeare pulls Sonnet 29 out of nowhere and gives it to him, but she immediately sees through it, tells Burbage, “You didn’t write this,” and demands an audience with the real poet.

In other news, James Burbage is trying to get funding for a new theatre so we have plans for the Blackfriars Theatre in the works. That’s kind of nice to keep the chronological pace of the story moving forward, as it’s a minor story arc at best.  In a show that’s so interested in pushing the boundaries of sex and violence, it’s odd to see the devote any time at all to real estate deals. But, looking at the whole episode, we can predict where that story is going and what’s going to happen next.

Speaking of which, I continue to be embarrassed by the sex in this thing.  It’s like softcore, it reminds me of when we first had cable when I was in middle school and we’d come up with reasons to stay up until midnight so we could catch a show on “Skinemax’ that never really showed anything but at the same time didn’t leave much to the imagination.  We even get a walk through of the brothel where there’s a fully naked woman bouncing up and down in the lap of a customer.  Move on already, unless the audience for this show is horny twelve year olds.  We have the internet now, if we want that we know where to get more, more easily.

I wish I knew more about Marlowe’s history, because his story is getting interesting.  Last week he met a new friend, obviously someone very important to him, but I have no idea who it is.  This week we see Marlowe’s portrait! Now I’m hoping a Marlowe historian fills me in and tells me everything I’m seeing is historically accurate.

The “urchin” story (I’ve learned his name is Presto) gets as dark as it’s going to get this week, where we’ve not only confronted the child rape angle, but when the sister tries to rescue him we get to watch her whipped until he comes back. I won’t spoil how it all plays out, but I hope they’re done with it.  We really don’t need it to be that dark. Who do they think they’re appealing to, exactly?

In the WTF scene of the week, Anne comes to visit Shakespeare at the tavern and meet his friends.  This is incredibly awkward – they don’t know anything about her concerns (like the price of fish) and she hasn’t even bothered to see their play yet.  But then Kemp appears and it’s wonderful. He starts flirting with her, composing a poem on the fly that turns into a song. It feels so in character, his personality perfectly matches the action on screen and how he makes himself the center of attention…

…and then it turns into a music video set to James Brown.  I’m not kidding.  I loved it right up to that moment, then it was just laughably stupid.

Overall I liked this episode (even the urchin stuff, dark though it may have been, did move the plot forward). There’s plenty of content, lots of Henry VI action (Anne does eventually go see the play), sonnet 29, Burbage, Kemp, Dark Lady, Marlowe …  if they focused on those stories and less on the violence and torture (I haven’t mentioned Topcliffe at all this week, even though he’s here), I’d be much happier.





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Commonwealth Shakespeare 2017 : Romeo and Juliet on Boston Common

I haven’t missed a Commonwealth Shakespeare performance on Boston common since the infamous Hamlet incident in 2005. Every year I wait to see what they’ll play, every year I tell friends and family and coworkers for weeks leading up that I’ll be going.  It’s something of a holiday for me.

This year is Romeo and Juliet. Or, like I told everybody, “The one everybody knows!” I could not say that about Love’s Labours Lost or Two Gentlemen of Verona :). Better, I could at last take the kids. People might think that my kids have grown up with Shakespeare, and they have. But that doesn’t mean that at under ten years old they can sit through an actual 2-3 hour Shakespeare performance in the original text.  They’ve seen movie versions, clips, kids versions, modern versions – but this would be the first time they would sit through a “real” show.

This was a very traditional interpretation, which made it even more perfect.  Period scenery, with a balcony dominating the stage.  Period costumes, with the Montagues in one color and the Capulets in another (and Mercutio in a third).

All in all I liked it, and I’m glad my kids – who also liked it – got to see this one. But I didn’t love it. My oldest, who just finished the play in high school, spent the play explaining things to her sister, and occasionally turning around to me when they chose a particularly interesting interpretation, or altered a more obvious line. My middle, who is fascinated primarily with story, wanted me to tell her the plots of basically all the Shakespeare stories. At one point she apparently realized that Shakespeare collaborated (when I called The Tempest his last solo effort) and she got all bent out of shape over that, declaring that she never knew Shakespeare was a fake, and that she’d have to seriously think about this. My youngest did his best to piece together everything he knew about the story, coupled with what he could skim in the program, with what he was seeing on the stage.  Of course that led to moments like the early scene where Benvolio is explaining to Lord Montague where Romeo has been, and my son explains to me, “That’s Tybalt talking.”  In this particular cast, both Benvolio and Tybalt were two African American gentlemen, and from our seats I’m sure they looked very similar to him.

Stuff I Liked

One particularly fascinating moment came during the “pre-show” of sorts. The troupe put on a stage combat demonstration. No explanation or narration, just an opportunity for the audience to get a sneak preview at the fight scenes.  I watch two guys go at it and tell my kids, “That must be Romeo and Tybalt, because that’s not how Mercutio gets it.”  My attention drifts, because in a few minutes I realize there’s about twenty people all battling and I think, “Oh, cool!  The opening scene!”  When suddenly this tall, athletically built woman, in a dress, leaps into the fray with sword drawn and parts two warring men.  It was actually pretty cool, and looked like something out of a movie fight scene. I had no idea what was going on.  My brain immediately flipped through the script trying to figure out what I’m watching.  “Wait,” I say out loud, “Are they going gender blind for this?  Cool.”  I ask my oldest to look her up in the program, and without looking (because apparently she already had), all I hear her say is the word “princess” because now there’s some other noise, I think the director had come out to talk.  I still don’t get it, and I think that this is the actress’ name.

Nope – that’s Princess Escalus.  They have gone gender flipped for that particular role, and I’m totally ok with it because she was seriously badass. When this Princess said to knock it off, people took her seriously.  (What I did not like is that they put her in a dress but still left her lines calling herself Prince.  Can’t we just pick one?  Either you’ve got a woman playing a man, or else you’ve flipped the gender of the character.  It’s jarring to me when they play it from both angles.)

Love Mercutio.  I tell my kids, “The trick with Mercutio is, the minute you see him, you have to like him.  He’s the cool guy that everybody wants at the party.  He’s the one where you’re invited to hang out and you’re all, Oh, Mercutio’s gonna be there?  Dude, absolutely, let’s go!”  And this Mercutio (who was giving off a strange Key and Peele vibe) crushed it there.  During the Queen Mab speech all of the other masqueraders are hanging on his every word.  But he can just as easily flip and talk one on one with his pal Romeo.  I find myself looking sadly forward to watching him die because I already like him.

Commonwealth Shakespeare 2017 Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet are … well, annoying. Overacting every word.  And I’m totally ok with that.  I am of the “Romeo and Juliet are two stupid kids who think the world is ending around them” school, and kids in that situation *are* annoying, even if it’s Shakespeare they’re reciting.

The soundtrack. I don’t know how to explain it, it just worked.  The party scene was hopping.  The fight scenes were ominous.  With my kids at this one I was especially aware of anything happening that would help make it obvious what is happening on stage, and when the music suddenly switches when Tybalt walks in, you know something’s about to go down.

There were also bits of interaction with the audience that were pretty cool, and kept my kids entertained.  Several times the Friar actually motioned to the audience to complete his lines.  Granted this had the effect of really killing the mood because he was enunciating the first part like Inigo Montoya playing rhyming games with Andre the Giant’s Fezzick the giant (“You have a great gift for ….rhyme…”) but hey, it was fun.  I’m not holding this production up to any high standard.

There’s also a funny bit in the beginning where Romeo and Benvolio are arguing about Rosaline, and Romeo’s got his line, “Show me a mistress that is passing fair,” so Benvolio hops down into the audience, picks out a woman to stand and show off for comparison to Rosaline.

It was little stuff, but it worked.  The party scene at the Capulets had the dancers all come through the audience to enter, but then back out into the audience to dance.  There were even these little mini stages set up around the edges that they made their way toward, which I even commented at the time seemed like a lot of effort because they were there for just that scene, and delivered no lines (just regular dancer/partygoers).  Strange amount of extra effort for that little effect.

A word, too, for the overall visual presentation of this production. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. Totally traditional, but that’s fine, there’s a reason why it’s iconic.  There’s a moment when Juliet’s up on the balcony in her nightclothes and the wind is blowing them just ever so slightly, I found it quite near perfect.

Stuff Not So Much

The pacing of many scenes was off.  Fred Sullivan, the most senior actor of the group, plays Lord Capulet as I expected. I go into every show wondering what role Fred will play, because I know he brings everything he’s got.  Saw him as Nick Bottom years ago and never forgot him. But it felt like all of his scenes this year were this sort of zero to sixty ride where one moment he’s laughing and jovial and the next HE’S RANTING AND SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS LIKE HE’S GOING TO HAVE A STROKE and then he’s back to being his jolly old self.  This was true at the Capulet ball where he had to yell at Tybalt, but it was really obvious when Juliet tells him she doesn’t want to marry Paris.  He’s talking to her so softly and quietly that you barely realize he is…taking off his belt.  The next thing you know he’s chasing her around the scene trying to whip her with it, screaming the whole time.  It got so bad that when he finally delivers the “My fingers itch” line, with his hand poised above his head to strike, I’m thinking, “Dude, the belt was way scarier.” Later when she apologizes and he goes back to being the loving father. He basically seems bipolar.  Which I think is an oversimplification of his personality (seems to be a theme here).

Same with the opening scene.  I like the opening scene to build and be mostly comedy, so the audience can get into it and feel the transition between the humor and the violence at any time.  Not here, here it is all loud screamy violence all the time.  We all know the Baz Luhrmann version, right? The scene in the gas station with all the screaming?  I liked that one better. Here it just felt like the actors couldn’t bring any more depth to their roles than, “These guys just want to fight because they hate each other so much.”

Worse, though, was Mercutio’s death.  Above I said I sadly looked forward to it, because I liked the character, and I think that the whole mark of a tragedy is you can know what’s going to happen and still be sad about it because you feel something for the characters.  Here I didn’t get that.  First, it was over way too fast.  They fight, Romeo dives in, Mercutio is struck and then immediatelydelivershisnextthreelinessofastIwasn’tsurewhatwashappening.

I like a good dying Mercutio. I want him struggling for breath, on the ground, uttering his dying words like a curse. This Mercutio was running around the stage during the whole thing.  It wasn’t even obvious that there was any blood on him until the end of the scene, and if you didn’t know what was going on you might have missed it. He even walks out practically under his own power.

I did like (and I realize this should go in the section above but they go together) Romeo’s reaction.  I’ve always thought that his line about “Mercutio’s soul is little ways above our heads, and you, or I, or both must go with him” is underrated.  I like a Romeo that’s a combination of fire-eye’d furious and yet also terrified because he thinks there’s an equal chance that he’s going to die, too.  I got that.  That was cool.

Bonus?  The rest of the scene plays out, and at some point, as the lights go down, Tybalt’s body is borne off.  But not before Benvolio taps one of the Capulets on the shoulder and takes his spot, helping to carry him.  Loved the idea of that.  Easily went past many people – it was dark, they were getting focused on their intermission bathroom break, no words are even spoken.  But it shows that Benvolio, who just replayed the scene as “Romeo didn’t do anything wrong, he came here trying to make peace,” maybe realizes, unlike the parents, that this is an opportunity to bring the families closer, not farther apart.


I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I ended up describing it to a co-worker this way: “It’s way better than any school or community performance you’ll see, but at the same time, it didn’t feel like the professional standard you might expect. I’m glad it was a free show. If I’d paid fifty bucks to go see it, I think I would have come away disappointed. There were things I liked, a lot, but there were many things that I felt could have been done so much better.”

It disappoints me to say that, but I’m just being honest. I’ve seen more than a dozen of their shows, and I’m not going to say each one of them moved me to tears. They’re quite capable of it. I’ll never forget the image of Kent in the storm, calling out for King Lear.  I loved the play so much I wrote two posts about it- part one, part two.

Of course, everything I’ve said above – the traditional interpretation, the oversimplification of the characters, the over acting – all made it the perfect show to take my kids.  So there’s that!  I just hope that next year when it comes around again, whatever show they may choose – because I’m going! – that I bring it up to the kids and see whether they want to come with us again.


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