Commonwealth Shakespeare 2018 : Richard III on Boston Common

My streak continues!  I’ve not missed a Commonwealth Shakespeare in the Park performance since 2005.  This year I finally met Steven Maler, the artistic director since the beginning.  Immediately told him about missing Hamlet, and that I’d toughed out the rain and then stood there, hours late, watching them strike the stage and screaming, “I’M HERE!  BRING EVERYBODY BACK!” Anyway, this year it was Richard III, and I was both excited – because I’ve never seen or really ever studied that one – but also a bit ambivalent, because I had no real stake in this one, you know?  I have no special love or hatred of the play, so if I missed it, would I care?  But I knew I’d care in the long run, especially about breaking my streak, so I’m happy to report we did not miss. I tried to explain the general plot of Richard III to my ever patient wife who tolerates my addiction.  Coming from someone who’s not read the play my summary is not the greatest, but it went something like this:  “Think of it in terms of today’s royal family. Say that Prince Harry has decided he wants to be king.  But he’s way too far down the line to ever see the crown, unless he does something about it. So he kills his brother William.  Then he decides that he’d rather be married to Kate, but problem, he’s already married. So he kills his own wife, then convinces Kate to marry him, despite the fact that everybody knows he killed her husband. This is too much for Prince Charles’ heart, so he dies.  William’s son is in the way too, though, so he’s also got to die.  You get the idea.  It’s a blood bath.”  That’s not a 1-1 match but it gave her some context to work with. Having never seen a different production I can’t really tell you if I saw a good one. I did not love their Richard.  Maybe it was early in the run (it opened on Wednesday, we went on Friday), but I felt like he was having trouble with his lines. His timing was off, and too often you could feel him take an extra pause like he was trying to remember the next word.  Once he spoke over another actor’s lines (which I’m pretty sure was not supposed to happen), and I may have imagined it but I thought I heard Clarence feed him a line right at the very beginning. What I did like, and found quite surprising, was the strength of the female characters. Not surprising in the sense that I didn’t expect strong female characters from Shakespeare, but rather that in all the times we’ve had discussions about Shakespeare best female roles, I never hear this play mentioned. I loved Queen Margaret, thought she was great.  Just this kind of crazy old lady who’s all, “Yup, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I’m old and I don’t care, I’m going to say whatever I want to say to whoever I want.”  I did particularly like when Buckingham recalls her curse just before his death as if to say “Well, I guess the crazy old broad was right.  Ok boys, let’s go.” Special appreciation, though, for Queen Elizabeth.  I lost track of how many of her family members were killed during the course of the play. But when Richard stands in front of her and says he wants her daughter, the Queen took the insanity of the situation to a whole other level.  The best way I can describe it is if you found yourself in one of those Friday the Thirteenth serial killer movies where almost everyone you know and love has been brutally murdered, only now the guy that’s been doing it isn’t a silent unstoppable monster, he’s here trying to have a conversation with you. And he wants one of your remaining daughters. This was probably my favorite scene, because on the one side you’ve got Richard who is just so calm in what he’s asking, completely in control of the situation. He doesn’t just want to take the daughter, he wants her mother to thank him for the favor that he’s doing for them.  She on the other hand is on the edge of insane at the whole situation. I think that if I watch more productions (and I plan to), I’ll better understand all the players and how they move about the game.  I was trying to stay ahead, including having the script loaded up in my app and following along at some parts.  It just wasn’t what I expected. Scenes I thought might have played more humorous did not get laughs.  The few laughs that it did get seemed more slapstick, with Buckingham cavorting about the stage and yelling “Boo!” to the children, or Richard doubling over slapping his knee laughing at just how evil he is. This year they did a thrust(?) stage? Am I using that term right?  Basically it came straight out into the audience so most of us were wrapped around the edges. We spoke with one photographer right at the edge of the stage, he was getting some great shots.
The “there’s only one man at this table who isn’t loyal” scene has been done many different times and I knew it was coming but I still loved it.
I have to admit I did like his look. He doesn’t look very deformed here.
I like the conspiratorial “over the shoulder” look I caught here.
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Paper Shakespeare : To Date Or Not To Date

Whenever I see a reference to a Shakespeare inspired video game it immediately catches my attention.  Shakespeare’s works are one of the great places to start for public domain stories, after all. So when I spotted Paper Shakespeare: To Date Or Not To Date  I had to check it out. In fact, I literally sought out the developers to have a conversation on the topic.  It turns out that they’re planning video games based on thirty-seven of the plays?!  I love that idea.  As a cynical old man I don’t expect to ever see it, but hey, as they crank them out I’ll be sure to post about them here. How is Paper Shakespeare? I wish I could say I liked it, I really do. It’s apparently supposed to be some kind of dating simulator, whatever that means.  From my angle (that of a fifty-year-old married father of three) it resembles a choose your own adventure book, offering me a few sentences of text at a time, leaving me to just press the space bar over and over again. I meet the characters, all sporting Shakespearean names and high school personalities – Tybalt the bully, Othello the football star, and so on.  Every now and then I get a choice to make – which class should I take? Who should I pass a note to, and what should it be about? I just don’t know what to do with it at all. There’s a counter in the corner that’s keeping tracking of some sort of interaction I have with the characters, and I get the feeling there’s a goal, I just can’t get into it.  Sorry, developers. Maybe I’ll enjoy the next one more.  
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Pre-Review : Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

When I first heard about the Hogarth Series that would product “modern novelizations” of Shakespeare’s work I thought, “Eh.  So what.  If you rewrite Shakespeare it’s not Shakespeare, it’s yours, and it’s just like any other novel.”  As such I’ve avoided them all to date. I decided to change that because we’ve got a book club at work and I wanted an excuse to read something of at least passing interest to me. When multiple people told me that Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, was the best one to come out so far,  was hooked.  If I’m going to give the series I try I might as well start with my favorite play. So glad I did! I’m just about halfway finished with it but I’m very excited to get out a review (and, who we kidding, it gives me another post for Shakspeare Day). Felix, our director, is in the middle of what’s to be his masterpiece, a production of The Tempest.  He likes this play so much he even named his daughter Miranda.  Unlike Shakespeare’s story, however, both Felix’s wife and daughter have passed away before the story takes off. But the next part plays out like you’d expect — control of the group is usurped by Tony and Sal, and Felix is “banished” from the theatre scene until he gets a job teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. He even uses the pseudonym “Mr. Duke”, an amusing callback to Prospero as Duke of Milan. The plot is following along close enough to the original that you have some idea what’s going to happen. Tony and Sal are going to end up in the prison where Mr. Duke will make his triumphant return. I just have no idea what’s going to happen other than that.  Our Prospero has no Miranda. This one seems to be all about revenge.  What would Prospero have been like if everything else had gone the same, except Miranda had not survived? I think we might have seen the full scope and scale of his power. While retelling The Tempest this book is also a lesson in The Tempest as Felix walks his prisoners through the finer points of the play.  He makes them re-envision Ariel as something other than just “a fairy”.  He asks them to find all the “prisons” in the play (apparently there are nine?) and they discuss what form each prison takes, who is imprisoned, and who has captured them.  I’m learning lots of new things.  I hope she gets back to the question of “is the island by itself magic” because I’ve often wondered about that myself. I don’t want to spoil much more of the book so I’ll stop here.  Suffice to say I’m loving it, and when I’m done with this one I’m going to dig into Jo Nesbo’s new Macbeth next. Definitely recommended.
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Nutshell In A Nutshell (A Review)

Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Alas, poor Hamlet…
I tried to read Nutshell by Ian McEwan about a year ago and couldn’t get into it. I thought I’d reviewed my attempt to do so about a year ago around Shakespeare’s birthday but I can’t find the post. Bardfilm recommended that I read through the whole thing, as the ending was worth discussing, so I forced myself through it. Nutshell is a version of Hamlet told with a unique twist – Hamlet is Gertrude’s unborn child.  That’s right, our narrator is a fetus. In general I’m not a fan of first person narrative,  I think it forces way too many unnatural hoops to jump through to get information to the audience in a way that the narrator would have known. Here that is magnified fifty fold, as our narrator can’t see anything that’s going on, nor can he go anywhere that Gertrude (or, as she’s named here, Trudy) can go. But that doesn’t stop him from knowing about the plot between his mom and her boyfriend (“Claude”) to kill his father (“John” because I guess there’s no easy way to modernize “Hamlet”). He knows when Claude loans his dad money. He knows what his mom is wearing. He knows where his mom and Claude go on dates, what she eats for dinner, and most importantly, what wine she likes. Seriously, the wine is a recurring theme. It’s one thing to just say that Trudy is a drunk who doesn’t think that being really pregnant is maybe a reason to cut back. She drinks so much and so often that the fetus himself is a budding oenophile, hoping at different times that his mother partakes of a particular vintage. I hated this part in audio, he really sounds like Stewie from Family Guy. Also to hate is the amount of sex that Trudy and Claude are having.  It’s a lot. And, since he’s got a front row seat, it’s described play by play and blow by blow by our narrator (who hates it, if that wasn’t obvious). Have you ever wondered what a sex scene reads like when it’s narrated from the inside?  Yeah, don’t. The most fun part about this book is the way the author tosses in references to the original text, like a treasure hunt. There are so many I can barely remember them, but one easy example was when the narrator said of Claudius, “As a man, he was a real piece of work.”  See what he did there? 🙂  References like that are just all over the book, and if you’re a fan of Hamlet you’ll have a great time trying to spot them all. There’s not much Hamlet story here.  No Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio. Just Gertrude and Claudius, already together and plotting against Hamlet’s father.  At best it’s something of a character study of how the author sees Hamlet.  Sometimes it was as if he was going through a checklist — they like to drink in the original? Check.  Hamlet’s obsessed with how often his mother is sleeping with his uncle? Check. But at some point you get to interpret for yourself.  Do we like this Gertrude? Is she a good person? How different is she from the original, and how?  What do her actions say about her feelings for the men in her life? If you like plumbing the depths of the framework Shakespeare gave us for these characters, and get a special little thrill of excitement every time you see a Hamlet reference in a completely different context, then you’ll probably like this one.  I am part of a book club at work, and none of them are really Shakespeare geeks, so I couldn’t see any of them getting anything out of this at all.  One even went so far as to suggest that the author wrote it on a dare, because she’s a fan of his other work.  
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Lear’s Shadow

SCENE 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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