My Shakespeare Book Nook

Shakespeare Book Nook Bookshelf Puzzle

These cool puzzles were all over TikTok a few months ago. My children, at this point, are all trained to see Shakespeare merchandise that I don’t already have and grab it, so I was happy to see that my son found the Shakespeare version (it comes in several different versions).

It’s called a “Book Nook,” and the idea is for it to sit on your bookshelf and represent this complete little world. At least, that’s how I interpret it. I’ve made a video so you can take a look inside. It’s quite detailed – almost all of the individual books have accurate titles, including plenty of Shakespeare (though this is probably not obvious in the video).

I will say that it was quite a challenge to put together. The entire thing is flat-packed like Ikea furniture, so you must snap out every piece. The books are all two pieces – the body and then a sticker – so you can imagine where there are shelves or stacks of multiple books. There are potted plants, rolled-up posters…even the open book sitting on the comfy chair is a fancy sticker. My son eventually had to help me put it together at the end. My hands were just too big (and my eyes too old) to see it through to the finish. But that makes it more special.

I love the depth of dimension it manages to get. Note the staircase in the back and the upper balcony. The mirror really gives that illusion of a continuing space.

If you like puzzles, it’s definitely a neat project. Make sure you have a cool place to show it off. I definitely think it needs to sit between some books – if you just leave it standing on its own it looks a little like a phone booth.

Available for purchase on Amazon.

Review: Much Ado About Anyone But You

I did not expect to be reviewing Anyone But You. It is a generic rom-com featuring a young lady, Sydney Sweeney, who I know only from my children, telling me about Euphoria. The trailers do not suggest much chemistry. This one feels like it’ll come and go pretty quickly.

Until I realized that the plot is about a man and woman who look like they hate each other, but only because they really like each other and are both afraid to admit it. Does this have Much Ado About Nothing vibes? Maybe I can pull some content from it.

AI-generated image of Beatrice and Benedick arguing

Until I realize that is a deliberate modern adaptation! Very cool. It’s been a long time since we had something like this. A friend mentioned She’s The Man the other day, which got us to talking about 10 Things I Hate About You. But those were twenty years ago. Time for something new? The IMDB page calls it a “loose adaptation.” The commercials don’t seem to mention it at all. Let’s see!

The characters are literally named directly from the play. Sydney Sweeney’s Bea is paired up with Glen Powell’s Ben. Later, we’ll meet her father, Leo, Ben’s best friend, Claudia (now cast female), and her partner, Halle (guess they couldn’t do much with Hero). Meddler Pete (perhaps an appropriately-cast Pedro character would have been a little over the top?) will hang out around the edges of the story, and Jonathan will be about as close to a villain as we’re going to get. So far, so good. They didn’t have to do that. That’s the kind of thing I do when I play with this idea — start with the original names and then shorten them backward until you get a modern, acceptable equivalent. Maybe that’s what the writer did here?

The premise tracks pretty closely as well. We get backstory that the original doesn’t give us – we see Bea and Ben have a lovely meet-cute that ends badly due to a misunderstanding, setting up the whole “I really liked him/her, and I’m not over how hurt I am, that it didn’t work out” dynamic. Sometime later, they are reunited when Ben’s friend Claudia announces her wedding to Halle, Bea’s sister. Even better, it’s a destination wedding in Australia.

Let the fireworks begin! They do what they can here with the banter back and forth – the writer is no Shakespeare. Every time B&B are together, they are taking cheap shots at each other in a wholly unrealistic way. If two friends-of-friends in real life acted like that, their friends would make it a point to keep them apart or at least tell them to shut up. But in our movie reality, they all get together and say, “Well, it’s clear that they both want to jump each other, so let’s set that up.”

It eventually goes off to be its own thing – Ben actually likes the Margaret character, and Jonathan is Bea’s ex-boyfriend. Bea and Ben quickly see through the “get them together” plan and decide to fake it to get everyone off their backs. So it’s got some amount of original content, which I can’t fault it for.

People who keep telling me that The Lion King is Hamlet need to watch a movie like this to see how you do an adaptation. On the one hand, this thing isn’t trying to be Shakespeare. The comedy is tired and obvious, going for the easy physical laugh whenever it’s available rather than trying to do it with dialogue. On the other, it literally sprinkles Shakespeare quotes – actually attributed to Shakespeare – throughout the movie. People walk by billboards with Shakespeare quotes. Again, didn’t have to do that.

So yes, what we have here is an R-rated modern romantic comedy that’s banking mostly on “Sydney Sweeney in a bathing suit” popularity, but once you’re in your seat, it’s not afraid to say, “Ha! This is actually Shakespeare, psych!” I’m pleasantly impressed. Regular reviews are talking about the chemistry (or lack of) between the stars, and the lovely scenery of Australia. But I’m just looking for the Shakespeare references. I wish they leaned into it more heavily in the marketing, and more people might give it a chance. Without the Shakespeare connection, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. And here we are.

Review : Love At First Sight (Netflix)

A funny thing happened recently when Bardfilm mentioned that he’d just seen Love At First Sight on Netflix and recommended it the next time my wife and I were looking for something to watch. We talk fairly often, but almost always about Shakespeare. So it was a bit out of sync with the norm.

Well, my wife and I had a movie evening tonight and decided to watch it. First scene, our narrator character is reading from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All right, Bardfilm, I see you 🙂

The film is a brand new 2023 release, based on the book “The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight,” authored by Jennifer E. Smith. It stars Haley Lu Richardson (The White Lotus) and Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody). So it’s not some “straight to DVD” anonymous release that would have collected dust on a Blockbuster shelf. It’s a legit project.

If not for one thing, we wouldn’t be talking about this movie. It is generic on top of generic. Even the title. I searched IMDB and came back with nearly 100 exact matches. I understand that it’s cribbed from the original book title and probably plays better than “Statistical Probability” of anything, but this is what writers are for. Surely, somebody could have grabbed a different catchy line to use.

Then it does the “what are the odds?” thing to the extreme. Our male lead is obsessed with the probability of things, so he goes around quoting statistics. Did you know that 1 in 50 relationships begin in an airport? But 50% of marriages end in divorce? In fact that’s the entire structure of the movie, as Jameela Jamil plays an omnipresent narrator who keeps showing up in unusual places to let the audience know that there was only a 0.06% chance of a happy ending, unless X Y Z happens…

So why, then, are we talking about it? Because for some reason, there’s the promise of a lot of Shakespeare in this one. And I say it like that for a reason. As noted, we open with the narrator reading from Dream. I wonder if our story is going to parallel Shakespeare’s in some way. Or if perhaps our narrator is a cleverly disguised Puck, running around and messing with lovers for his/her own enjoyment? Nah.

Later, we catch a glimpse of the hero’s parents, a pair of thespians, banging out a bit of Dream for our amusement. Later, there’s an entire Shakespeare-themed party where everyone dresses up as Shakespeare characters and performs. Only, we don’t get to see it. We see people in costume, and we’re given the numbers of how many of each character there are and what speeches were performed, but NOBODY ACTUALLY DOES ANY SHAKESPEARE ON SCREEN. Aw, come on! There’s a specific “Who are you supposed to be?” / “I’m Macbeth” moment … but at no point does this factor into the story. Nobody actually performs any Macbeth.

There’s a moment when our hero is running around looking for our heroine. They’re at a fancy house. I have that moment where I scream “OH IF SHE COMES OUT ON A BALCONY….:” but even that, the most obvious of obvious Shakespeare opportunities, doesn’t pan out.

Bardfilm and I were left pondering why the story would go there. So much Shakespeare and let so little. Shakespeare for the masses is a tricky business. Drop in some Romeo and Juliet and everybody’s right there with you. But push your luck and start bringing up stuff people didn’t study in high school, and you’re going to lose them. This one misses obvious chances while leaving in the bizarre ones. There’s more Richard III than Romeo in this.

A new form of movie rating scale came to me the other day. Forget stars or tomatoes. We should be rating movies on how much money I would have been ok spending on this. If I’d seen this in a theatre? I’d be annoyed. But at home, streaming on Netflix? It was a pleasant change of pace, and arguably one of the better new originals I’ve seen lately. Sure it’s cliché as heck but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well acted and produced.

Review: HAIR at the Seacoast Rep, Portsmouth, NH

Take a trip with me. It’s gonna be a long one, but hopefully worth it. And there’s even plenty of Shakespeare.

I was born in 1969, so I’m not exactly “Woodstock” age. But that didn’t stop me from loving that era. My college years were spent with a lot of long hair and tie-dye (but not any drugs, in case anybody thinks that’s implied). Somewhere along the line I found HAIR, I can’t remember. I probably recognized the “What A Piece of Work Is Man” song then, but I don’t think I knew how much Shakespeare was in there.

A few years out of college, my girlfriend (whose pet name was “Starshine”) and I travel to DC at my friend’s invitation to go see HAIR live for the first time. After a microphone-wielding hippie is surprised to discover that we know the words to “Good Morning, Starshine,” we’re pulled up on stage to dance with the tribe. Core memory locked.

Fast forward a few years. I have taken myself away for the weekend, traveling to see two shows – King Lear and HAIR. The girl from the previous story is long gone, but I’m dating someone new who will ultimately become my wife. She joins me for HAIR. Hey, we’d just started dating; I wasn’t going to make her sit through King Lear with me so soon (that’d come almost 20 years later).

Years go by, we get married and have kids. I’ll tell you something about when you have kids. You will sing lullabies. You will also get sick of singing the same songs repeatedly, so you will sometimes sing anything you know all the words to. Do you know what I sang to my kids? “Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair….” But also, “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason….” because if you didn’t know, that entire speech is set to music in the show. Hey, I thought, they’re too young to understand the words. But they’re going to end up memorizing it. And one day, they’ll understand.

I have a very specific memory of my 3yr old son demanding that I sing Shakespeare one night. When I started to sing “What a piece of work is man,” he stopped me and demanded that I sing Shakespeare, not Hamlet. He wanted Sonnet 18. Who thinks I’m kidding?

It’s not a stretch to say that my children have grown up literally since birth sharing my love for Shakespeare due very much to the musical HAIR. This show holds a very special place in my heart. It represents both my youth and my journey to parenthood, all set literally to the tune of Shakespeare.

And today, we came full circle as I took them to see the show for the first time at the Seacoast Rep in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I tried very hard on the hour ride to the theatre not to bore them by talking their ears off. “Remember how I used to sing you what a piece of work is man? That’s from this show. I mean, well, it’s from Hamlet, obviously, but it’s set to music because of this show.”

Photos were absolutely not allowed during the show (for obvious reasons if you know the show). So with permission, I grabbed a few of the set before the show began.
I love the Tarot card.
I think one of my daughters has that tapestry.

Tears of joy rose in my eyes as we sat down to a 30-year flashback. Only now could I experience it with my kids. I squeezed my wife’s hand and said, “This is my youth. I am so very happy right now.”

I told my daughter after the show that openings are everything to me. I have heard “Two households, both alike in dignity” a thousand times. But still, every single time I hear it live? Lightning bolts up the spine. It’s like that first jolt that tells you the roller coaster has started. So it is with the opening bars of “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius…” I am instantly transported.

I can’t and won’t review the whole show here because it’s not a Shakespeare show. There is, however, a lot of Shakespeare in it, so I think I’m justified in talking about it. Let me hit the highlights:

  • During a hallucination sequence where Abraham Lincoln comes out, followed by John Wilkes Booth, Booth is dressed as Hamlet. He’s literally carrying a skull. I have no idea if this is usually how it’s played (I can’t remember ever seeing it before) or how many people in the audience get that reference, but I absolutely loved it.
  • I wish I had a picture to justify this next one. Work with me for a second. This show had circus acrobatics during the slower songs. There were aerial silks and the hoop. I wish I knew if it had a different name. The hoop is on the ground, and somebody (sometimes two somebodies) performs inside it. Well, during the What A Piece of Work Is Man song, the aerialist(?) who’s been working the hoop comes out in a flesh-colored speedo and poses, and I think, “Oh, shit, that’s Vitruvian Man!” So we’re mixing our Shakespeare with da Vinci? Awesome.
  • When Claude wakes up from his hallucination (immediately after this song), Berger says to him, “Welcome back, Shakespeare.” I have no idea if that’s always in there or not, but I love the direct shout-out to the man. There’s a lot of American history in this place, but I know of no overt Shakespeare references in the dialogue.
  • The finale kicks in for me as the opening does; it sends lightning bolts straight up my spine. There’s a lot of Shakespeare in it, too – the background harmony is singing Romeo’s last words to Juliet before seamlessly moving into “The rest is silence…” When you know it’s there, it’ll give you chills every time. Unfortunately, I don’t think it stood out this time, but that’s only because Claude, who was singing lead at that time, destroyed it. He’d been doing a stellar job all show, but most of his songs were high-energy numbers coupled with frantic dance numbers. The finale is just him bringing the house down, and I’ll tell you, he hit a couple of notes that there touched my soul. Damn.

I have to wrap this up it’s gone on too long. During intermission, a member of the tribe came out to chat and I told him what I said above, that this has been a 30-year trip for me that now I get to share with my kids. It would be appropriate for this show to talk about psychic powers, and my man got the message. During the finale he came into the audience to grab my kids and drag them on stage to dance with the tribe, just like I did in another life. (Unfortunately, he grabbed two out of three, probably because he only had two hands. And it was a small theatre where I think only my kids were brought up, so there wasn’t a steady stream of people my daughter could join. When I went, it was a big stage and dozens of people were pulled up. So she chose to stay in her seat.)

Thank you, Tribe, for a memory that I hope with all my heart, keeps the cycle in motion. Who knows, maybe thirty years from now they’ll be writing somewhere for their own audience, telling them about how they brought their children.

Let the sunshine in.

Commonwealth Shakespeare presents Macbeth on Boston Common

I’ve been attending Commonwealth Shakespeare’s annual free production on Boston Common for longer than I can remember. I think my first show was their previous Macbeth in 2003, where we went with friends and only saw part of it in a right place, right time, “Oh, they’re doing Shakespeare? Let’s watch!” situation. Since then, I missed 2005 (Hamlet, a long story) and 2019 (Cymbeline, my mom was sick). So I’ve seen … 17 of their shows. Only Macbeth and Much Ado have repeated on my watch. The great thing about going now is that my kids are old enough to come with us, and have been to several shows now. So it’s a family affair! We rent our chairs; we get our spot, and we bring a Chinese takeout picnic. Gotta love traditions.

When I saw the burned-out jeep, I posted wondering whether we were going to get a dystopian Macbeth. That’s kind of like the generic interpretation, don’t you think? I feel like dystopian Macbeth is clichè. “Watch,” I told the kids, “everybody will be dressed in military uniforms and camouflage.”

Possessing the bodies that were available, maybe?

So, there’s that. 🙂 In fairness, Macbeth gets to change his clothes, but nobody else does. Where’s the camo, though, you ask? Let’s talk witches. The witches weren’t just in camouflage, but a bright yellow, almost glow-in-the-dark version. Once you accepted that you weren’t going to see anything “witchy” and thought of them more as the possessed souls of fallen soldiers, the effect worked.

I’m paying particular attention to the costumes because I want to highlight Lady Macbeth’s. She got all the good stuff, and it was so worth it:

I was asked on Twitter how they made use of the set. I wish the jeep had moved, but it did not. The lights worked, as we see with the witches. People climbed all over it. This did give us opportunities for a cool shot like this during the dagger speech:

I still can’t figure out if there’s something special going on there. The angle of his real arm doesn’t match the angle of the shadow. That’s one of those “If I went back to see it again I’d pay closer attention” moments.

They did a great job with lighting and smoke. This is Macbeth going to visit the witches. Later, the stage will be full of the ghosts of kings. And yes, unfortunately, that monitor was right in our way the whole time. That’s my biggest complaint about the show. In recent years they’ve leaned heavily into accessibility, which is great (a year or two ago, they had sign language interpreters, which was really cool). But that’s a horrible spot, and you’re literally saying, “We’re going to lower the quality of the experience for the majority of the audience who don’t need this feature.”

Yes, but how was the show?

Enough pictures; let’s talk about acting. Over the years, it’s become my role to be the Shakespeare explainer guy. Whoever I’m with, whether it’s my family, coworkers, or friends, typically doesn’t know the story’s intricacies. So I’m called upon to, and I’m going to say this like this for a reason, keep it interesting. Anybody can read the synopsis in the program, and I could laundry list what’s about to happen. What I try to do instead, therefore, is to find the “watch for this” moments that they can hang on. They’re going to lose track of who’s who, and they’re going to misunderstand most of the lines. So if I can find some moments of human experience that (a) they won’t miss and (b) they’re sure to understand, then they have something to work with.

What I said this year was, “Watch Macduff. Here’s the thing with Macduff. Macbeth’s technically got no beef with him, he’s not Duncan’s family and he’s not in line for the throne. But he doesn’t go to Macbeth’s coronation, and Macbeth takes that personally. So there’s going to be a scene where Macduff’s wife and children are murdered. I don’t know how they’re going to play it here, but it’s a bad scene, it’s legit horror if they want to go that way. And then there’s this poor messenger that has to tell Macduff what’s happened, and Macduff loses it. Done right, it’s heart-wrenching. He’s so excited to get news from his family that the messenger at first tells him everything’s fine, but then has to break it to him, and the way he just keeps asking, all of them? all? can tear your heart out. So Malcolm convinces Macduff to join his army, and ultimately he’s the one to be the hero, get his revenge and kill Macbeth to end they play.”

They – more specifically, Macduff – did not disappoint. The actual murder did, That scene was played out almost like an interpretive dance, and I found it too safe. Make it obvious; make it bloody. The wife’s pregnant, and I can’t remember if that’s always how it is played. But if you show the murder of a pregnant woman, you’ll get the audience to pay attention.

But Macduff just crushed it. The Shakespearean actor playing Macduff is immediately gone, and the man whose family has been murdered (because he wasn’t there to protect them!) is before us. When I described the scene as I did, he gave me exactly what I hoped it would be. You felt what he was feeling. His revenge would mean something.

Points also to Lady Macbeth, who knocked it out of the park in all of her scenes. During her sleepwalking scene, she let out this long ghostly wail that quite frankly made me jump and ask, “Where the hell did that come from?” It made her seem less than human. My only disappointment is that in the next scene, where there’s a scream offstage, they used a recording. Why? You just delivered a beauty on stage, do it again.

I also want to shout out a minor thing I saw because sometimes the little things catch your attention. One of the murderers lets Fleance go. He clearly picks him up, carries him out of the fight, gives him back his flashlight, and makes what I saw as a “Go! And, *shush!*” gesture. I thought ok, that’s different. But … there’s no room for it to go any place. I still wanted to point it out because I did see it! Somebody made that choice and should know that it was noticed!

How was our Macbeth? Here’s how I decided to put it. With Macduff, I saw a man whose family had been killed. With Lady Macbeth, I saw a woman driven insane. With Macbeth, I saw an actor playing Macbeth. Does that make sense? It’s not necessarily bad. He’s got a stage presence. His delivery is excellent. But I never really felt his story. I’ll give you an example. In the production that Teller (of Penn and Teller) did for the Folger years ago, we get to the scene where we learn that Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped and, just for a second, that revelation knocks Macbeth to his knees like this whole final act had just been battering down upon him and this was the final blow that almost but didn’t break him. I still remember that. Here, though? Not even a pause. Just rolled right into the next line. yawn.

I think I’ll leave it at that. I’ve been watching these productions for 20 years now, and when I try to remember them, only certain parts will be memorable from each. This Macduff will. Lady Macbeth’s wail. Not too much else.