Saturday, December 5, 2009

Twelfth Night - Opening Thoughts

Greetings, my fellow bardnuts. Make that, Season's Greetings! How appropriate that we read Twelfth Night at this time of year, yes?

My first exposure to this play was via a lovely production at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. The director set it in the Victorian era, so costume fabrics were luxuriant. The set included a very tall Christmas tree and all the details and elegance of a Victorian home (the inside theatre allows for more set decoration). Truly a treat for the eyes. To this day, when I read this play, I can still envision the lovely young woman who played Viola and exactly how Malvolio looked in his ridiculous yellow stockings. The production was clearly strong enough to shape my own directing efforts when I worked with a group of juniors on a Super Saturday project a number of years ago. But this play, although similar in plot to other comedies with twins, mistaken identities, and cross-dressing, renders itself more mature, more sophisticated than Shakespeare's earlier comedies. How did this evolution happen?

Thoughts to ponder as we embark:

1. The role of Malvolio is troubling to me. Details are wrapped up so neatly at the end of this play with the exception of Malvolio. Is he really all that BAD, as the root of his name suggests? Or is it possible for his character to elicit sympathy?

2. Compare/contrast Viola and Olivia. I would cast my vote for Viola as one of Shakespeare's most intriguing heroines. :-)

3. Ahhhh, the language of love. It's all here ― from the lyrical (gpf, I know exactly which line you will use here!) to the absurd.

4. The role of the fool compared to the fool we see in King Lear. Does comedy dictate a different social commentary than tragedy?

5. And last, but certainly not least, I will be teaching this play in January. Gimme some favorite teachable moments, or the "stuff" I can't possibly leave out.

Cheers to all!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

RE: Julius Caesar - R.I.P.

Ernst writes:

That wonderful line, "We owe God a death," is used by a Spanish-speaking doctor the Cary Grant figure in Howard Hawks' Only Angels have Wings warns about the dangers of flying with him and landing on an island mountain top. (trans: "As your own Shakespeare says in Henry the Fourth, 'We...'")

This doctor, like Caesar, is a generation older than most of the other characters. His moral choice lies between retiring comfortably and carrying on boldly with a pretty god notion of who he is and what bravery in this world amounts to. Something THIS old man (thinking of Yeats' "Why Should not Old Men be Mad') does not find particularly ignoble.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Julius Caesar - Then and Now

Ernst writes:

Julius Caesar is a challenging play in several ways. I would begin by noting that the play contains no Talbots, Queen’s gardeners, Poinses, Bastards, French ambassadors—middle level characters to enrich the play’s viewpoints and give you various angles on its larger world. Shakespeare keeps to his historical sources pretty closely, so his play is more a telling of what everyone knew/knows with little embellishment.

Then to some other reflections. I find myself thinking about Julius Caesar then and now. We in the early 21st century have been increasingly surrounded by the dangers, stupidities and failures of so-called ”republican” (“democratic”? “liberal”?) governments for years and years. We have seen incident after incident of initially idealistic revolutions gone bad, have listened to years and years of “democracy’s” demagogues and their tricky doubletalk, which breeds fear and hate in the “mob” (and, by the dint of the mob’s overwhelming numbers, in us). We have seen the two last great political romanticisms, Communism and Fascism, rise, kill, and turn to ashes. We presently fear that our own government is bound for its grave. To us, a lot of the politics of Julius Caesar is old stuff.

Where were the democracies of Shakespeare’s time? There weren’t any. Even in the “Brave New World” of the western Hemisphere” (which The Tempest reminds us is but a flashily put on set of surfaces [Facebook, anyone?]), there was little beside exploitation and butchery with a smattering of mini-theocracies more authoritarian than most of England at the time. There was the possible exception of Champlain’s dream of settlers and Native Americans living in harmony, but Shakespeare and his audience knew little about that that dream. And anyway, Champlain would be in an English prison for three years and would die only a couple more after getting back to Canada—his dream with him.

The people Shakespeare was writing for did not know what we know about this subsequent history. They had not seen revolution after revolution decay into triumvirates of clever pitchmen (Antony/Rush Limbaugh), bankers (Lepidus/Lehman Brothers) and cagey politicos (Octavius/Dick Cheney).

They probably agreed with Shakespeare that Julius Caesar was the best bet to become a king like the ones they were accustomed to and admired (as, one might note, admiration for Elizabeth was waning), and that he would die with stoic nobility. They probably also realized that, once he became emperor, Augustus wouldn’t be all that bad either, and that imperial Rome would achieve more wonders (including 200 years of relative peace) than the world had seen before or since (England’s attempt at its own “Augustan Age” was, after all, only a century and a bit away).

So the question is: what new and what would a contemporary audience have found compelling about this play which, to a modern reader, is a little bit boring? Yes, the various orations are beautifully wrought, and the sight of historical giants upon the humble stage re-enacting their well-known stories is stirring, but what else?

To me, the most interesting aspect of Julius Caesar is the way in which Shakespeare continues his deepening study of individual characters—using some of the psychological tools of his time. I remember some teacher from days gone by explaining that Brutus was in the grips of the melancholic humour and that Cassius’ humour was choleric or fiery. This makes sense as far as it goes, I suppose. These seem to me to be the only characters that really interest Shakespeare; the others are mostly treated as historical figures who need to be fleshed out for dramatic purposes, but not gone into too deeply. (Is Caesar slightly over-the-hill sanguine?) Cassius seems pretty straightforward to me also.

This leaves Brutus as the most interesting study, and what I find interesting about him is that he is a break from Shakespeare’s earlier melancholic. Yes, he has a case of melancholia (the “scholar’s melancholy,” but he would not strike one as a flat character like Don John, Jacques, or even—to an extent—an “antic-disposition” Hamlet puts on. He is related to a humours character, but he is more than one. Caesar’s team might call him a malcontent in one of their historical revisions, but he is not. He is a whole character dealing with serious decisions. Hamlet—here we come.

Postscript: If this is incoherent, it is partly because it is coming to you from the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, where I am in a bed, having had a very close call with an eschemic (blood supply to intestine blocked) small intestine (lost more than a yard). At least I am not on the terrible “trip” (hallucinations of the worst sort) Adavan put me on the day after my surgery.” I hope to leave soon and get back to Kingston, and also to get into further correspondence with you all.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Julius Caesar - R.I.P.

Gil writes:


My Julius Caesar challenge is to consider why three significant figures in this dramatization of Roman history rejected, ignored, or turned away from sound advice or astute observation, each with fatal—or tragic—consequence. Caesar, Cassius, and Calphurnia intuit danger, but Antony, Brutus, and then Caesar reject heeding such warning.

Randall asked if intuition matters when after Caesar observes “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,/ thinks too much. Such men are dangerous,” Antony tells him to “Fear him not.” Then, after Cassius has argued that Mark Antony should not outlive Caesar, Brutus replies, “for Mark Antony, think not of him,/ For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm/ When Caesar’s head is off.” And after Calphurnia has dreamed Caesar is murdered on the steps of Pompey’s monument, she pleads with her husband and lord not to stir out of the house, yet Caesar changes his mind and leaves to visit the Senate when Decius plays on his vanity and predicts he will there be crowned. Yet, of course, to ignore all three warnings or predictions turns out to be disastrous, and the question is why the warnings are ignored.

Take Caesar first. Of the three, he is the most self-absorbed. Brutus is correct—Caesar is ambitious, and he is also vain. It is interesting that Shakespeare (or Plutarch) emphasizes his fallibility: he is deaf (“Come on my right hand [Antony], for this ear is deaf” I.ii.213), he is possibly impotent (he instructs Antony, about to run in the Lupercal fertility festival race, “To touch Calphurnia: for our elders say,/ The barren, touched in this holy chase,/ Shake off their sterile curse” (I.ii.6-8), though I’ve been told it takes two to procreate) , and he has epilepsy (“He fell down in the market-place, and foam’d at the mouth, and was speechless…’Tis very like he hath the falling sickness,” I.ii.252-54).

Cassius interprets such signs of mortality, and adds a long description of Caesar failing to swim the frozen Tiber and of when the two were in Spain: Caesar shook violently with a fever (ah, cursed Swine Flu). “[Yet]this man has now become a god” (I.ii.115-16). Admittedly both Casca, reporting the falling sickness, and Cassius, stirring up the conspirators, are bent on underscoring Caesar’s mortality, but these physical frailties are arrayed as background to the susceptibility of character which allow Decius to play on his pride, ambition and vanity, so that he goes forth to the Senate on the Ides of March to meet his death. Still, Caesar is also a fatalist: “What can be avoided/ Whose end is purpos’d by the mighty gods?” (II.ii.26-7) and more nobly “Cowards die many times before their deaths,/ The valiant never taste of death but once” (II.i.32-33), an heroic sentiment worthy of the most noble Feeble in 2 Henry IV: “A man can die but once, we owe God a death.”

So the physically fragile Caesar rejects his wife’s nightmare prophesy (as well as that of the Soothsayer), goes forth to the Senate, likens himself wonderfully to the constant, true-fix’d Northern Star, and dies on the steps of the Senate at the hands of a coven of conspirators. Dead by Act III, scene 1 of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, yet is it, my challenger asks, a function of tragedy that Caesar fails to heed the words of wisdom? Caesar proceeds to his doom because he is significantly human, and it seems that Shakespeare has underscored his personal frailty. Despite the title, The Tragedy of… and both Aristotle and A.C. Bradley, Caesar’s death is the fall of a political figure whose “flaws” are both fragility and complacency rather than heroic ruthlessness. The gods are not looking down on Caesar.

The play that preceded Caesar, Henry V, is also a study of political behavior. King Henry is exclusively a public figure, everything we see is calculated to inspire or manipulate his public performance. The “tragedy” is left for the epilogue which reports that all the victories and patriotic pride achieved by King Hal would be pissed away by his son, Henry the Sixt. Caesar, in ignoring the vision of Calphurnia (don’t let the rabble claim you are hen-pecked), goes forth to an event that changed the course of history, from Republic to Empire, for reasons that seem more to do with Time than tragedy. So the great North Star falls from the sky after all.

Brutus? To be continued.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

RE: Julius Caesar - Is Poetry Fatal?

Mike writes:

Rereading Caesar's "I could be well moved, if I were as you" speech now, it sounds a lot like he's "the decider" ― i.e. constancy is held as a virtue in and of itself, even should the metaphor point toward massive narcissism: how many Caesars does it take to screw in a light bulb?


The world revolves around him.

And as it turns out (et tu, Brute?), he was right. He had "no fellow." The end result of egotism is isolation.

Brutus, on the other hand, in his "our cause is ripe" speech, sees the world as a place of interconnected flux, where forces move that are much bigger than us, and we must catch the tide accordingly. He's the liberal, maybe, to Caesar's W. Or at least the Colin Powell. He reflects the world around him, and is perhaps ultimately presented as too reflective in a number of senses. When Cassius offers to be his "glass" and reminds Brutus that "the eye sees not itself/but by some other thing," he is tapping into Brutus as a creature of context. What Brutus perhaps forgets is the paradox embedded in the metaphor: on the one hand, the mirror never lies, while on the other, that's all it can do ― offering a two-dimensional world of complete reversals where left is right, and right is wrong.

I'd be tempted to put the two side-by-side for my students and consider how they intereact in terms of nautical navigation. The constellations and Caesar's Pole star constancy would be necessary to find one's way, yet knowledge of the currents and tides would be equally beneficial, perhaps.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Julius Caesar - Do the Tides of History Flow or Ebb?


I pose two queries, but you may only respond to one:

Between about 1596 and 1599, Shakespeare wrote four English history plays: King John and the last three in the Henriad, and then, in 1599, he wrote Julius Caesar, his last play before Hamlet. Absent a possible The Long, Boring Reign of King Henry III, he had mostly exhausted the history of English monarchs, at least until he discovered a couple of lines in Holinshed recalling Cymbeline. Luckily, North published a new edition of his translation of Plutarch's Lives in 1595, including lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. Eureka! More history. Superficially, Julius Caesar looks like another chronicle play; there are 39+ named characters (the three Henry VI's average 40) and it records historical time, March 44 BC to November, 42 BC, Caesar's assassination to the second Battle of Philippi.

1) But The Tragedy of Julius Caesar veers away from dramatized history into a character study of moral ambiguity in a political setting, which precipitates personal tragedy. The play's title names the tragedy of Caesar, yet he is dead by the middle of the play. Which is the most tragic among ambitious Caesar, ethical Brutus, or aristocratic Cassius? [If you are desperate for time, you can parody this question by choosing Cinna the poet―The Tragedy of Bad Verse.]

[If it is useful, Northrop Frye, Fools of Time, describes three categories of tragedy: tragedy of order (e.g., Julius Caesar), tragedy of passion (e.g., Antony and Cleopatra), and tragedy of isolation (e.g., Othello), and in each, the tragic action is played out through an order figure (here Julius Caesar), a rebel figure (Brutus), and a nemesis or avenger figure (Mark Antony).]

2) Often Shakespeare traces an evolution from "things-known-for-sure" to a complex multifaceted response to "a world-out-of-joint." Hotspur's chivalric honor to Hal's imitation of the action of the sun; Richard II's romantic delusion to Bolingbrook's political pragmatism; Claudius's decisive order to Hamlet's world out of joint. In Julius Caesar, Brutus is an anachronism, locked in a golden dream of principle while history inexorably moves forward to the passions of Antony or the rational calculations of Octavius. Brutus, responding to his understanding of Caesar's threat to the Republic, asserts the only solution, "It must be his death; and for my part,/ I know no personal cause to spurn at him,/ But for the general." (II.i.10-12). Contrast Mark Antony's funeral oration (III.ii.73-252), a marvelously orchestrated persuasive speech, with the repeated coda "For Brutus is an honorable man." But Antony, solus, prefaces this with "O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,/ That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!" (III.i.254-5), and after the oration, after the Plebeians swarm away shouting "Revenge! Seek! Burn! Fire! No socialist health care! Kill! Slay!," Antony, left alone, concludes "Now let it work, Mischief, thou art afoot,/ Take thou which course thou wilt!" (III.ii.260-61).

Do you find Antony morally pragmatic, passionate, or ruthless? Yet when we first meet young Octavius, he joins with Antony in a cool and detached meeting to generate a proscription list, death by committee discussion, and at Philippi Octavius is colder than Antony: "I do not cross you; but I will do so" (V.i.20). So who best represents the mirror to the society in which we are reading this play? Or, alas, who in this tragedy is the villain (nemesis)―the passionate Antony or the calculating Octavius?


RE2: Julius Caesar - A Woman's Place

Randall writes:

I think Cindy's right on about Portia and Calpurnia (I've been spelling the latter with an 'h' because my Folger does). And I had not noticed the degree to which Shakespeare compels us to compare the two women (they both kneel in back-to-back scenes) or their two situations.

I have two thoughts I'd like to add to Cindy's response. First, in my Folger there is a stage direction after Caesar responds to Calpurnia with "Mark Antony shall say I am not well,/ And for thy humor I will stay at home": He lifts her up. Around this stage direction are the little superior half-brackets indicating that the editors have intervened, adding something not found in the first folio. The Bevington edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare does the same: He raises her, in brackets. Neither my Signet (Rosen) nor the Penguin (Sanders) do this. What gives?

One might argue that Caesar's response, an acquiescence to her concern, does spiritually or emotionally lift Calpurnia up, and therefore the emendation is metaphorically appropriate. But I really like Cindy's suggestion that Caesar leaves her on the ground as Decius enters, marking a clear distinction between him and Brutus. My guess is that the interventionist editors look at the next 40 lines of text, at which point Caesar asks Calpurnia to get his robe, and wonder if it's practical to leave her on her knees for that long. And directors, wary of angry actors with bruised knees, are probably glad to have the added cue.

Second, Cindy reminds me that I am sad that Portia disappears after only two scenes. Unlike Calpurnia's, Portia's presentation to her husband strikes me as laying the foundation for a rich, interesting character. She defines the bounds and expectations of marriage skillfully, personally, and she extends the possibilities of a woman's domestic role by defining "wife" as more than furniture (meal-time companion, bed-mate, occasional conversationalist). She argues that she is his unlimited self, what we might call today his better half. She perceptive and persuasive. And in her language there is an efficient lawyerliness that makes me feel she has some connection to that other Portia.

Given this as a set-up, it's disappointing when Shakespeare dismisses Portia two scenes later with "Ay me, how weak a thing/ The heart of woman is!" After her earlier discussion with Caesar, I think she's really made of sterner stuff, but because the play moves on to the Capitol (men only) and then the battlefield (men only), she's left like Hotspur's Kate forgotten on the sidelines.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

RE: Julius Caesar - A Woman's Place

Greetings, comrades,

The female characters in Julius Caesar, unfortunately do NOT save this play from being a "boy play." I see Portia and Calpurnia as mere devices against which to reveal the characteristics of their husbands. For example, Shakespeare gives Portia stage directions:

… No, my Brutus,
You have some sick offence within your mind,
Which by the right and virtue of my place
I ought to know of: and, upon my knees,
I charm you, by my once commended beauty,
By all your vows of love and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, yourself, your half,
Why you are heavy… (II.i.267-275)

Brutus, similarly has a pseudo-stage direction in telling his wife to rise:

Kneel not, gentle Portia. (II.i.278)

I can see Brutus extend his hand to help her rise. Portia seems, to me, very sincere in caring for Brutus, and wanting to understand what troubles him. Portia's efforts to get information out of her husband are not unlike any wife's attempts to get her spousal unit to talk about feelings, right gentlemen? She uses several tactics here, from reminding him of his marriage vows to perhaps dealing him the "guilt" card by suggesting she is nothing more than his harlot. (hee hee) Has she used these tactics before? hmmmm… I personally like his response to her:

You are my true and honorable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart. (II.i.288-290)

My female students like that one too (sappy girls, we'll fall for anything!). But at least the kindness of his words, as well as his actions, show his care for his wife, making Brutus look pretty good, right? She should not be supplicating herself to him; in raising her, he acknowledges her as his partner, and indeed the other half of him. He tells her that he will tell all:

Portia, go in a while
And by and by thy bosom shall partake
The secrets of my heart.
All my engagements I will construe to thee
All the charactery of my sad brows. (II.i.304-308)

Now, Gil asserts that Brutus never gets around to telling Portia the truth. I'm not so sure. It's not necessary for Shakespeare to depict this conversation; we already know why Brutus is so troubled. Brutus might very well reveal his dilemma to his wife in the "white spaces" that we don't see. Regardless, the purpose of the scene is to peel back another layer of Brutus' character.

In contrast, we have Caesar and Calpurnia. Calpurnia beseeches her husband not to go to the capital; all the signs of impending doom are present: Calpurnia's dream in which all of nature is awry (connect to Macbeth!), the soothsayer's warning, the priests' reading of the sacrifice. Caesar's line tells us that Calpurnia, too, supplicates herself to her husband:

And these does she apply for warnings and portents
And evils imminent, and on her knee
Hath begg'd that I will stay at home to-day. (II.ii.80-82)

Unlike Brutus, Caesar leaves her on her knees (according to Shakespeare's copious stage directions―just kidding), and goes on to the capital thus swayed by the weak rhetoric and flattery of Decius (sappy Caesar, he'll fall for anything). Hence we see Calpurnia as the undeveloped female character, like Portia, serving only to reveal characteristics of her husband. These are not Shakespeare's deliciously strong or richly developed women like we see elsewhere. I'm skipping the auditions.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Julius Caesar - Is Ambition Bad?


Brutus, in explaining his decision to put Caesar to death, uses "ambition" as a dirty word: "As he was ambitious, I slew him" (3.2.28). Antony seizes on this and uses it in his famous oration (3.2.83ff), juxtaposing the claim of Caesar's ambition with Brutus' honor. I'm wondering, do we find negative connotation in the etymology of "ambition"? Or does it come from elsewhere, somewhere cultural?

And, in a play where we are asked to mistrust a primary conspirator, Cassius, because "he thinks too much," where do Elizabethan values seem to lie? In thoughts or deeds?


(Quotes from Folger edition)

Julius Caesar - Does Intuition Matter?


When Caesar sees Cassius, he tells Antony, "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look./ He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous" (1.2.204-205). And Antony replies: "Fear him not."

As John McLaughlin might say – Wrong!

When Cassius and Brutus are plotting against Caesar, Cassius argues that, "I think it not meet/ Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,/ Should outlive Caesar. … / Let Antony and Caesar fall together" (2.1.168-170, 174). And Brutus replies, "for Mark Antony, think not of him,/ For he can do no more than Caesar's arm/ When Caesar's head is off."


And poor Calphurnia has had a dream in which Caesar is murdered and the Capitol and a statue of Caesar run red with blood that bathes the hands of smiling Romans. She recommends to Caesar that "You shall not stir out of your house today" (2.2.9). Caesar, after Decius suggests this is his only chance to earn a crown from the senate, says "How foolish your fears seem now, Calphurnia!/ I am ashamed I did yield to them./ Give me my robe, for I will go."


In all three cases, good advice is overlooked. What does this say about the characters of those who fail to heed such words of wisdom? And is it a function of tragedy that they do so? In Romeo and Juliet, such moments suggested the intercession of Fortune, Fate, or mere coincidence, but in Julius Caesar, the events that lead characters to their doom are significantly human. Has Shakespeare freed himself from concerns about Fate?


(Quotes from Folger edition)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Julius Caesar - Is Poetry Fatal?


Perhaps Caesar's most arresting speech is his response to Cassius' pleas for Publius Cimber.

I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me;
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumb'red sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world; 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he. (3.1.58-70)

Quite the extended metaphor, no? What, in your opinion, does it reveal about Caesar? Is he a poet?

Here is another metaphor from nature, as Brutus discusses battle tactics with Cassius before Phillippi:

Our legions are brimful, our cause is ripe.
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures. (4.3.214-223)

And what, in your opinion, does this tell us about Brutus, how he thinks? What differences do these "arguments" establish between Caesar and Brutus? How would you ask your students to unpack the poetry of these two passages?


(Quotes from Signet edition)

Julius Caesar - Toga, or Not Toga?


I once saw a production of Julius Caesar that emphasized its Orwellian undertones. (In Act 3, scene 1, Brutus follows the murder of Caesar with statements like "death is a benefit," and "we are Caesar's friends," and "let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood … And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,/ Let's all cry 'Peace' …".) So the production updated the costumes (Faux Fascism), displayed a big head of Caesar looking over the stage, and kept the lights low to create a moody and oppressive feel.

Have you ever done a production of Julius Caesar? If so, how did you approach the play's setting – traditional or adapted? Or more specifically, what are your thoughts on staging Caesar? Would you do it with togas? What effect does the Roman look have on the audience's reception of the play?


Julius Caesar - Is the Play the Thing?


Can I use the term "metatheater" in the William Shakespeare Experience? We readers should nod when Caesar condemns Cassius:

I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much,
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. [But] He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music. (1.2.200-204)

And Brutus admonishes the conspirators with:

Let not our looks put on our purposes,
But bear it as our Roman actors do,
With untired spirits and formal constancy. (2.1.226-228)

Then, as Casca describes Caesar among the people as a performance – thrice refusing the crown, fainting, offering his throat for cutting, wringing "Alas, good soul" from several wenches – he concludes: "If the tag-rag people did not clasp him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in the theater, I am no true man" (1.2.258-261).

With these early references to theater, are you set up as a director to impose an overt theatrical style on the whole play or, for instance, Antony's funeral oration? Setting aside for a moment the fact that all performed plays are "theatrical," does Julius Caesar call especial attention to the theatricality of its characters' public relations?


(Quotes from Signet edition)

Julius Caesar - Whose Tragedy Is It Anyway?


It says right on the cover of my Folger edition, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. But what kind of tragedy kills off its titular tragic figure in the first lines of the third act?

You may argue that it's really Brutus' tragedy, that the title should be The Tragedy of Marcus Junius Brutus. If so, where does Brutus fall in the spectrum of tragic figures, Shakespearean or otherwise? Does he conform to the oft over-used Aristotelian definition, or Northrop Frye's sense that Shakespeare presents tragedies of character, or something else?

Is the play even a tragedy? Or a history play masquerading as tragic?


Julius Caesar - A Woman's Place?


Not to pigeon-hole you to distaff comments, but what is your reaction to Portia's concern about Brutus' failure to share his concerns with her (2.1.234-309)?

Within the bonds of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I your self
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Well I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife. (2.1.280-287)

Is communication what distinguishes a wife from a harlot? And how does Portia stand up to characters like Constance (Geoffrey's wife and Arthur's mother), Kate (Hotspur's wife), Portia (Bassanio's fiancée in Merchant) or Titania (Oberon's wife)? Does Portia redeem Julius Caesar from being a boy-play if you're trying to teach it?

Nota bene: If you haven't finished Julius Caesar yet, Brutus never gets around to revealing "the secrets of my heart" to Portia (2.1.306) and, alas, by 4.3.146, she is tired of waiting.


(Quotes from Signet edition)

Julius Caesar - Brutus as Malcontent?


You've pointed out how Jacques, Don John, and Hamlet, with his arms "encumbered," represent versions of the "Malcontent" character. In reading Julius Caesar, I came across the following passage:

Y'have ungently, Brutus,
Stole from my bed. And yesternight at supper
You suddenly arose and walked about,
Musing and sighing, with your arms across,
And when I asked you what the matter was,
You stared upon me with ungentle looks.
I urged you further; then you scratched your head
And too impatiently stamped with you foot.
Yet I insisted; yet you answered not,
But with an angry wafture of your hand
Gave sign for me to leave you. (2.1.257-267)

My italics ("with yours arms across"). My question: Does Brutus fit into your thesis on the development of the stage malcontent? If so, how does this stock character evolve our understanding of him? And how does he relate to others like Hamlet (tragedy) and Jacques (comedy)? If not, what accounts for this odd behavior that Portia describes, since it seems so out of character with the rest of the passages by which we come to know Brutus?


(Quote from Folger edition)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

King John - Performance Log (August 2009)

King John
directed by Teresa Thuman
Warren G. Magnuson Park
Seattle, Washington
August 6, 2009

Gil: Performances of King John are indeed rare, but it showed up on one of the Seattle’s summer companies’, GreenStage’s, schedules. Randall and I were the first to arrive while the actors were gathered on one of the terraces surrounding the playing area, and an actress teased, “we’re only here to rehearse; the play is tomorrow.” Randall lamented he had come from Minnesota just to see King John, so she said they would give in and put the production on anyway.

Randall: That’s one of the things about going to Shakespeare-in-the-park that I enjoy most – the frequent interaction one has with the actors and production, prior to the play, after it, and even during it. In general, with Shakespeare-in-the-park, the world beyond the “stage” is much more likely to become part of the stage. At The Strange Capers’ production of As You Like It in Minneapolis this summer, a group of bicyclists rode past the performance meadow as Rosalind was attempting to teach Orlando to woo, and one of the actors turned and waved as they went by, essentially making the bikers part of the production (no doubt casting them in La Tour de la Foret d’Arden). This gave the cyclists the license to shout out comments, and each of them did.

Gilbert: In Wooden O’s Taming of the Shrew, the starving Kate begged cookies off a group in the audience, stuffing them into her mouth even as Petruchio was denying her other food – a great laugh-inducing moment that required the audience and the character’s interaction with it. You have to wonder what happens on the afternoons when Kate can’t find anything edible in the audience.

Randall: And at Shakespeare and Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, Benedict hid in the audience (as did Beatrice later), crawling around on the grass and crouching behind lawn chairs, while Claudio and Don Pedro pretended he wasn’t there. The audience laughed more because of where he was than what he was doing.

I think Shakespeare-in-the-park falls into a spectrum of Shakespeare performance styles differentiated by the level of audience involvement: proscenium (which emphasizes the fourth wall), arena stage (more intimate), theater in the round (which requires characters to enter and exit through the audience), Shakespeare-in-the-park (which is clearly enhanced or improved when the audience becomes part of the action), and promenade-style (where the audience is on stage with the action). This spectrum gives us a rich set of options that allow directors to control the effect the performance has. I wonder if one is preferable to some directors, or if each is determined by the space available for the performance?

Gilbert: This really highlights the idea that Shakespeare-in-the-park is a sub-genre, and the sub-genre has some constant parameters, like an increased audience engagement. No production, for example, is more than two hours, and this King John, sub-generically without intermission, came in exactly in that time. No scenes were cut, though many of the longer speeches were streamlined, reducing what Herschel Baker has called “tumid rhetoric.” All the characters were there except James Gurney, servant to Lady Faulconbridge; we even saw the Count Melun, who makes a very late Act V appearance, takes a message to the rebellious English nobles, learns they are twice-turned turncoats, and dies.

Randall: I think the cutting a director has to do for Shakespeare-in-the-park requires real skill. I can’t count the number of times over the last few years that I’ve walked away from a park production and thought not only that the director did an excellent job reducing a text by 30 percent but that I didn’t miss the redacted lines. Stu Naber’s Much Ado for Shakespeare and Company, particularly, left me feeling this way, but I think if I knew the King John text better – I’ve only read it once – I’d feel the same way about Thuman’s cut which didn’t seem to lose anything significant but still only ran the length of a typical film.

Gilbert: Another Shakespeare-in-the-park generic difference worth considering is that summer acting companies are small, so there is more frequent cross-gender casting and double casting, Your typical Guthrie or Seattle Rep production rarely works with the same company size or its effects.

Randall: Right. And I think nothing is done in a theatrical production without an interpretive consequence. The stage manager for The Acting Company’s Henry V (directed by Davis McCallum) explained to my class before we saw the play that the double casting was done very carefully, so that more than just one actor doubling roles, there was some connection between the roles created by having the same actor play them. In that production, after Henry V exposes the plot of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey who would have betrayed Henry to the French, the same actors turn up two scenes later as members of the French court.

Gilbert: The cross-gender casting evokes the same thought-provoking connections. In Wooden O’s Taming of the Shrew, Lucentio’s servant Tranio was female, allowing for a piquant twist of jealousy when Lucentio is smitten with Bianca.

Randall: I had to think hard about that one. What benefit to the production is there to having a love-lorn Tranio, whose yearnings for Lucentio will go unrequited? It occurred to me later that my discomfort came from Taming of the Shrew’s being a comedy, used to uniting lovers rather than holding them at arm’s length. Only Malvolio seems to walk away, his love for Olivia mocked and unacknowledged. Giving Tranio this dead-end love does what? Her character doesn’t even get the explicit resolution that Malvolio does, exiting with the line “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.”

Gilbert: In King John, GreenStage’s youngest-looking actor, Anthony Duckett, played Arthur, whom Shakespeare has ahistorically insisted is a boy, then, after Arthur’s death, Duckett reappeared as the very young King Henry III, making for an interesting parallel of two aspirants to the throne or—possibly—for real audience confusion in that Arthur has just fallen to his death and there is no foreshadowing that a Prince Henry will be introduced as an Act V surprise.

Randall: When we saw Ken Holmes’s production of Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3, condensed by GreenStage into a single play, the double casting worked both to allow the company to perform dozens of characters and to unite generations of the same family by having fathers and sons played by the same actor. It was a little confusing, but we were led to expect the generational shift by the scope of the production.

Gilbert: Of course, the sine qua non of this subgenre is the park itself—al fresco, audience on the grass, many with picnics; passers-by, often with dogs, curious about why these standing people are shouting at those sitting people (“Look, Luke, they have swords; they must be jousting with The Society for Creative Anachronism”). This is maybe the only time of all the Shakespeare performance formats that acoustics become a major part of the production experience. The night of our King John was overcast so the flight pattern of passenger jets approaching SeaTac airport circled under the clouds and obliterated about 50 lines. We have been on lawns within five feet of the “stage” at Twelfth Night or Henry VI, 1, 2, 3, but at Magnuson Park there is an amphitheatre of terraces, stone backs for wide grass rings. Occasionally, there will be a backstage of trees, or, more crass, one will be on a baseball field and hope that Little League didn’t schedule a game for the evening. Whatever arrangement, the actors must project—no whispered dying words or subrosa asides.

Randall: I am usually against mic’ing actors, but I think it works really well for Shakespeare in the park, although a little wind across the microphones can create its own acoustical nightmare.

Gilbert: Another side effect of the park subgenre is the audience. It’s free. It’s a neighborhood activity. It’s informal. It can be family time. At our production there were two boys, about eight, who were not interested from the beginning, and they talked, with great animation, nonstop, through the first third. A mother put her figure to her lips. Audience turned and stared. One audience member shushed the boys more than once. The boys put a blanket over their heads and thus invisible went right on with their conversation. With no intermission, the house manager could not come up and duct-tape their mouths shut. So I’m afraid I missed the Bastard’s ‘commodity” speech and much else had to be sort of pieced together. It wasn’t GreenStage’s fault, but it left Randall and me to spend half our post-production discussion on parental responsibility rather than the Bastard’s comic relief, baiting Austria about wearing a calf-skin instead of a lion’s pelt.

Randall: All these things not only affect the audience, they become part of the performance, and that’s largely unique to Shakespeare-in-the-park. The kids wouldn’t have been such an issue if King John were not such a rare play to see performed. If it’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, you know the plot, characters, and maybe even the lines, by heart. A little interruption, be it airplanes or uninterested children, isn’t going to disorient you. But I came within a hair’s breadth of getting up and asking that mother to remove her children from the area because I needed to concentrate on what was being said; I was unfamiliar with the play. Maybe that’s one reason so much summer Shakespeare in the park tends to be of commonly produced plays.

Gilbert: It was wonderful to see a rare performance of this chronicle play. Unlike the Henriad, King John is not obviously unified thematically or dramatically. The Will Shakespeare Experience explored mothers and sons, history, the power of possession and right, politics, and moral dilemmas. In that many characters have a moment of reversal or change, there is the possibility of character exploration. But this production, directed by Teresa Thuman, chose, or was obligated, to play in declamatory style, with special attention to scene-ending couplets. The lines were shouted, clearly and confidently (no Leo DiCaprio speaking lines he didn’t understand), with an obvious awareness that every line was iambic pentameter (uncut, John is 2,570 lines long, all verse, not a single line of prose). This style tended to homogenize all the speaking parts, Louis the Dolphin sounding much like the Earl of Salisbury.

Randall: The speaking parts may have been homogenized, but I thought the declamatory style de-emphasized character in favor of speech. Many of the speeches stood out as well done, and the production seemed to move from speech to speech. But I had a harder time differentiating characters other than King John and Pandulph (who was the only character dressed in red silk and so he stood out). Is that an effect of declamatory style? Can you create three-dimensional characters with complex motivation if you are faced with a play dominated by lengthy speeches that you need to give emotional shape to so that the audience doesn’t get bogged down? Where do you turn when the emphasis is so much on long oratory?

Gilbert: The chronicle was underscored with plenty of choreographed battle, similar to GreenStage’s Henry VI three years ago. In King John most of the characters make some shift: John (played by Corey McDaniel) is warlike, then pusillanimous; Hubert (Drew Dyson Hobson) is dutifully committed as King John’s assassin-designate, then heart-achingly compassionate in sparing Arthur; Blanche (Ashley Flannegan) is a mousy cipher in her betrothal to the Dolphin, then warlike in her resistance to French reneging of a peace treaty; Constance (Erin Day) is fierce in the interest of her son, Arthur, then deeply sunk into grief; only the Bastard (Daniel Stoltenberg) is really multi-faceted—a witty satirist, a mocking warrior, a loyal viceroy for the collapsing kingship. Yet in Thuman’s production, these shifts do not seem to illustrate the evolution of character. Instead, the production is marked by the occasional emergence of a passage of deeply-displayed feeling, breaking the steady flow of rather muddled chronology.

Randall: I wonder if this is another effect of Shakespeare-in-the-park, where frequently you have fewer of the tools available on stage – set design, music, elaborate costuming – that lend support to character interpretation or thematic perspective? I did think that many of the speeches came off really well, in fact giving character where I had lacked it when I read the play.

Gilbert: Yes. When Cindy Calder first read King John, she was thrilled with the women, especially Constance, but I dismissed Constance’s “Death, death. O amiable lovely death!” as mere madness, agreeing with French King Philip, that she is more fond of grief than of her child, yet Erin Day’s moving, beautifully orchestrated interpretation directed me to reexamine emotion, and therefore character, in the whole play. Cindy is right. Constance is a great part.

Randall: And I found Hubert’s sympathetic reaction to Arthur’s pleas not to put out his eyes very moving because of the way that Hobson handled Hubert’s breaking down and shift of allegiance. It’s great to get the opportunity to discuss the play this way. I wish more Shakespeare-in-the-park performances would feature the more rarely produced plays. I get the opportunity each year, between Seattle and the Twin Cities, to see maybe 10 different Shakespeare plays in the park, but without GreenStage and its devotion to the chronicle plays, I would have no “first time” Shakespeare productions to reflect on. That’s worth traveling some distance for.

Gilbert: Which is why it was funny when it was over that an alms-collecting actress approached us and said “all the way from Minnesota just for us?’ Yes, indeed.

Logged by Gil and Randall
Photo credit: Pandulph (Andrew Perez) lectures King John (Corey McDaniel) in GreenStage's King John. Photo courtesy of GreenStage.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Taming of the Shrew - Performance Log (June/August 2009)

The Taming of the Shrew
directed by Mishia Edwards
Chameleon Theatre Circle
Logan Park, Minneapolis, MN
June 27, 2009

The Taming of the Shrew
directed by Aimee Bruneau
Seattle Shakespeare Company/Wooden O Productions
Allen York Park, Bonnie Lake, WA
Aug. 2, 2009

1) Country and Western Shakespeare:

Imagine for just a minute that you are from Lubbock, Texas. Born and raised. You have the accent. Say the following:

"What? Will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see – she is your treasure, she must have a husband; I must dance barefoot on her wedding day, and, for your love to her, lead apes in hell. Talk not to me; I will go sit and weep 'til I can find occasion of revenge."

Rolls nicely off the tongue, doesn't it, the western lilt giving a clear rhythm (though not necessarily iambic) to the language. In fact, pull any speech out of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and see if this accent not only succeeds in negotiating the Shakespearean verse but also lends the speech a certain understandability that recovers both arcane vocabulary and syntax.

This linguistic shift is at the heart of two productions of Taming of the Shrew I saw in parks 2000 miles apart this summer. Mishia Edwards' production in Minnesota sets the play smack dab in the mythical landscape of the American west – cowboy hats and boots, thumbs in jeans pockets, plaid shirts, and even a lariat to capture a wayward filly. But it's not the accoutrements of the western genre that catch one's attention, it's the language. Specifically the marriage of the western twang and Shakespeare's poetry.

The same is true of Aimee Bruneau's Taming of the Shrew in Washington, set in a modern trailer park replete with all the class stereotypes that brings to mind: a barefoot-and-pregnant woman opening the play, staring off to the horizon; a worn Airstream trailer parked to the side, the residence of "wealthy" Mama Baptista and her two daughters; tractor hats and t-shirts advertising "Hooters" and bars; Grumio sporting the camo pants and mesh shirt of a backwoods militia wannabe; Bianca returning home with tiara and sash after winning the "Miss Padua" beauty pageant; Hortensio taking on the mannerisms of an Elvis impersonator to teach Bianca music; and everyone traipsing through their lines with a country accent.

If I enjoyed anything about either of these productions, it was listening to the language. I won't turn this into a treatise on how dialects close to our southern speech have more affinity for British English than the northern ones, nor do I feel up to a meticulous scansion of western and country argots for comparison to Shakespeare's blank verse, although one could certainly look at the lyrical qualities of those dialects. But I sat in these two performances and was struck in both how these dialects drew attention to the language. Each, for example, places a heightened emphasis on certain syllables and words in a way that homogenized mainstream English has forgone. When I teach Shakespeare, I spend very little time on iambic pentameter because I don't want students saying "but SOFT what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS!" I want them to find the natural meaning in a speech, not get caught up in its rhythmic artifice, as delightful and impressive as it may be.

But with both our stereotypical country and western dialects, one can have the attention to meaning as well as a heightened sense of rhythmic quality. When Petruchio says to Baptista "I am a gentleman of Verona, sir," the standard reading has to work with what to do with the extra syllable, the line's hiccup. But in western dialect, the "of" gets swallowed into the unstressed final syllables of "gentleman" and the lilt pounds out the stressed syllables in VeRONa and SIR: "Ah am a gen'lemenuh Verona, suh." What's also emphasized is the fun, language reshaped to create ambiance, in this case a twang or backwoods articulation that lifts us away from our preconceptions of Shakespeare and recasts setting and character through aural modes without changing much of the text. There were a number of moments in Bruneau's production specifically when I thought, counter-intuitively, "this is the way Shakespeare ought to sound."

2) The Irony of Pop Culture Shakespeare:

Taken further, though, there is a dissonance here, away from the logic of dialect. Americans have a very specific relationship with both the western narrative genre and the trailer trash stereotype. Both representations are examples of low culture, at the opposite end of the spectrum on which we might also locate Shakespeare. The western may be one of the deepest of American mythologies, but it is also the stuff of countless early TV programs, radio shows, comic books, b-movies, and serials, and pulp literary ventures. Most westerns are not so much explorations of who we are, but escapist fantasies reflecting who we want to be – outlaws, noble gunmen, rugged individualists. Edwards' mashing this genre up with Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew makes the same kind of sense that we find in Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (the lineage of which can be traced back to the classical story of the rape of the Sabine women). Both rely on comic structure, characteristics, and expectations to bridge the gap between their high art source and popular form by connecting the remarkable with the mundane. Watch, in Donen's film, how common frontier labor becomes beautiful choreography while the ageless story of love, courtship, and marriage is lampooned as bride-stealing and shotgun marriages.

So Donen goes both ways on the bridge, one elevating and the other ironizing; Edwards, meanwhile, sticks mostly with the irony. Watching her production, I kept thinking, "does Shakespeare work as a western?" "What do we find in the western genre that elevates our understanding of Shakespeare or Shrew?" In the end I felt the west was just an unusual place for Edwards to locate her Padua, and that the play would have clicked more forcefully embracing the irony. I wanted Hortensio (played by Trish Fike), teaching Bianca music after she's clearly been making eyes at Lucentio, to belt out "Your Cheatin' Heart." I wanted Grumio (James Reijo), placed in the sidekick role here, to milk every Gabby Hayes/Pancho/Tonto stereotype available, and I wanted a Petruchio (Adam Scarpello) cut more from the John Wayne mold, someone whose rough-cut manliness is both repulsive and finally irresistible to his woman. That would explain Kate's arc. That would say that Shakespeare is in control of American archetypes as much as Elizabethan ones.

Bruneau's trailer park Shrew does fully embrace its irony because the white trash/trailer park setting is more derogatory stereotype than pop culture genre, so there's no disguising the fact that we've come a very long way from the Globe Theater. Shakespeare's language tends to lend his characters, no matter how foolish, a sort of nobility. In this Shrew, though, the dialect, as well as the Pabst Blue Ribbon, Hooters t-shirts, and possibility of a Spam dinner for Kate, does the opposite. The effect, at least initially, is sort of like Andy Fickman's She's the Man which resets Twelfth Night in a boy's boarding school and turns its chiaroscuro comedy into mere farce. I worried that Bruneau's embracing of such two-dimensional and negative stereotypes would rob Taming of the Shrew of its opportunity for wit and for our ability to care for characters rather than just laugh at them. Would I be made simply to feel superior to this Shrew's world?

In short, no. Bruneau's directorial choices and some excellent acting on the part of David Quicksall (Petruchio) and Kelly Kitchens (Kate) expose the dishonesty of all stereotypes, that they are a shortcut which impede our ability to see people as they really are – complex, heroic, vulnerable, foolish, disappointed, resilient, etc. This production points out that the idea of a shrew itself is a derogatory stereotype, and beneath it (and the jokes that go with it) is a Kate caught in a disappointing and unfair world with no seeming prospect of escape. Kitchens gives her anger, a sharp tongue, violence, rebelliousness, all as attempts to escape the trailer park vortex. She slams doors. She throws things. She flips the bird. But underneath is someone who wants to be loved, who wants her qualities recognized, who wants happiness.

Similarly, Petruchio's "do what I say woman" attitude is softened as the play progresses. Quicksall's Petruchio wants more than just "to wive it wealthily in Padua," and he seems genuinely frustrated and disappointed by Kate's contrariness. As a result, his actions against Kate that seem so harsh in other productions, become a kind of common-ground seeking, and I had a lot more sympathy for him than I have had before. In addition, Bruneau's deft management of these two complex characters results in the impression, at the end of the play, that they really do love each other. The irony of the setting (can one wive wealthily in this trailer park?) and characters embraced, her production escapes it, escapes farce too, and reminds us of what is best about Shakespeare.

3) When a Man Loves a Woman:

Beyond the irony, one advantage of both the western genre and the trailer park stereotype is that they provide a convenient approach to a significant difficulty one faces guiding Taming of the Shrew through the 21st-century landscape of gender politics. Regardless of how it's handled, I always find myself nervous at the image of Petruchio deprogramming Kate (deprivation of food and sleep used as behavior modification techniques) and downright scared by the impending ugliness of Kate's hand-under-the-boot speech at the end of the play. Placing these two productions in communities that conform to male-superior visions of America smoothes over these rough waters because we accept the gender roles more readily, our modern attitudes defused a bit by generic willing suspension of disbelief. In addition, as a character Kate works to undermine the masculine status quo. Whether we see her rebellion as a failure (Edwards) or not (Bruneau), the outcome in both these shows relies on our acceptance of the narrative in which the productions are framed.

And because these framing narratives, the western and the trailer park, are more intimately familiar to us than some remote Padua and appropriate to the comic dynamics of the play, both Edwards and Bruneau have created productions that promote Shakespeare's comedy into our own culture. I think Bruneau does this more successfully but both shows created an opportunity to rethink Shakespeare in a satisfactory way.

Logged by Randall

Photo credit: David Quicksall as Petruchio and Kelly Kitchens as Kate in Seattle Shakespeare Company/Wooden O Productions' The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

RE: As You Like It - Rare Triumphs

Ernst writes:

A third, curiously interesting play is the anonymous romance, The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582). If more such plays from this period had survived, says P. P. Wilson, "the gap between Greene and the young Shakespeare and their predecessors might not seem so striking. If Damon and Pythias and Three Ladies of London show a growing concern among playwrights over the dangers of corruption, parasitism and Machiavellian intrigue in the court and in the city, The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune supplies an early dramatic example of the melancholic posing and attitudinizing that has such a profound influence on the malcontent strain.

The Rare Triumphs is essentially a play-within-a-debate. Venus and Fortune begin the debate by arguing over which has more power. Finally, Jupiter suggests that the two put their debate to the test by comparing their abilities to influence a "real" situation involving a pair of lovers he has been watching. Thus the story itself begins with Act II, and the immortals step back to watch. Venus and Fortune reappear briefly, alternately claiming that the ensuing events prove one or the other superior and ultimately stepping in at the end to bring the whole business to a happy close, counseling that "Wisdom ruleth Love and Fortune both" (Rare Triumphs, p. 243).

The romance involves a young man, Hermione, who loves Fidelia but is scorned by Duke Phizanties, her father, and Armenio, her brother. Hermione's father, Bomelio (a distant ancestor of Prospero), is also a duke, but has been banished by Phizanties' father, become a hermit in the forest, and taken up magic. Bomelio finds and reveals himself to his son and sets out to help Hermione win Fidelia by using his magic to strike Armenio dumb, presumably with the idea that he will be able to trade his ability to cure Armenio for Phizanties’ acceptance of Hermione as a son-in-law.

Bomelio immediately catches one's eye. He has clearly spent most of his time sitting in his cave and brooding:

He that hath lost his hope, and yet desires to live,
He that is overwhelm'd with woe, and yet would counsel give;
He that delights to sigh, to walk abroad alone,
To drive away the weary time with his lamenting moan;
He that in his distress despaireth of relief,
Let him begin to tell his tale, to 'rip up all his grief,
And if that wretched man can more than I recite
Of fickle fortune's froward check and her continual spite,
Of her inconstant change, of her discourtesy,
I will be partner with that man to live in misery. (173-174)
Indeed, not only does he bewail his "dainty dish … of fretting melancholy" (175) for nearly fifty lines (making this initial speech twice as long as any other in the play), even his rascally servant, Lontulo, laughs at his posing:

He'll do nothing all day long but sit on his arse, as my mother did when she made pouts:
And then a’ looks at this fashion, and thus and thus again; and then, what do ye?
By my troth, I stand even thus at him, and laugh at his simplicity. (177)

One would suspect that Lentulo crosses his arms or makes some such characteristic gesture when he says "and thus and thus," for he seems to have studied his master’s melancholia thoroughly.

Lentulo is a great imitator, and he soon falls under the influence of Penulo, Phizanties' parasite-servant, who is so proud of his ability as an informer that, before he tells Armenio about his discovering a secret meeting between Fidelia and Hermione, he gloats:

This is a step that first we use to climb:
We that, forsooth, take hold on every time.
Men of all hours, whose credit such as spites,
In heat forsooth hath called us parasites. (172)
Ever eager to serve his own best interest, Lentulo so prefers Penulo's courtly ways to his own austere life with Bomelio that he soon deserts his master and accepts Penulo’s promise that he will "prefer" him to "a service in the Court presently" (182). Lentulo next steals a set of fancy clothes and begins to ape the manners of the court. Indeed, he decides to fall in love and ape the melancholia to which courtiers are prone as well:

Thy love with a woman! Are you in love, sir, then, with your leave?
What an ass art thou: couldst thou not all this time perceive,
That I never sleep but when I am not awake,
And I eat and I eat till my belly would ache?
And I fall away like a gammon of bacon.
Am I not in love when I am in this tacon?
Call'st thou this the court? would I had ne’er come thither
To be caught in Cupido. I faint, I faint!
0h gather me, gather me! [Pretends to swoon]
Come up, and be hanged. Alack, poor Lentulo! [Aside]
Tell me with whom thou art in love so.
You kill me, and you make me tell her name. No, no.
0 terrible torments, that trounce in my toe!
Love, my masters, is a parlous matter! how it runs out of my nose!
It's now in my back, now in my belly; O, now in the bottom of my hose. (196-197)

Not only does Lentulo make fun of Bomelio’s melancholy, he suffers from pseudo-melancholy himself. Clearly, the author of The Rare Triumphs is totally familiar with the conventions of melancholia: indeed, he is one of the first dramatists to bring these conventions so richly into play.

The gloomy, morose Bomelio, who is at once a part of this world and alienated from it, is thus an intriguing figure. Not only is he a melancholic, he shares other characteristics with malcontents to come. He is also (like Hamlet) a revenger, who sees his plotting against the corrupt Phizanties as part of a "Just revenge that here I undertake" (208). He wears disguises masquerading both as a hermit and (shades of Malevole's "virtuous Machiavellianism") as an Italian doctor who claims he can cure Armenio’s dumbness. He is a manipulator, having magically caused this dumbness himself―a fact which Armenio senses, suggesting in sign language that his affliction was caused by "some old man, that threatened to be revenged on him" (208).

Finally, after a capricious fit of righteousness causes Hermione to destroy his father's magic books, the apparently overwrought Bomelio plunges into a fit of madness:

What can'st thou tell me? tell me of a turd. What, and a’ come? I conjure thee, foul spirit, down to hell! Ho. ho. ho! the devil, the devil! A-comes. A-comes, a-comes upon me, and I lack my books. Help! Help! Help! Lend me a sword, a sword! 0, I am gone! [He raves.] (226)
Indeed, like the distracted Hamlet's, Bomelio’s raving turns to anti-feminism. When Fidelia tries to comfort him, he rails:
Hark the whore! See what an impudent whore it is. Sleep, you whore? I’ll sleep with you anon. Gog’s blood, you whore, I'll hang you up! [He threatens her.] (231)

Although no dramatic character would be so labeled for two years, I would argue that Bomelio its, indeed, an early “Malcontent.” The melancholy, disguise, tendency for virtuous intrigue, madness, railing against women and hermit-like reclusiveness which comprise his character are all attributes of malcontents to come. In addition, he represents a bit of the scholar—although his romanticized scholarly abilities (magic) are for him a source of power rather than a source of frustration—and he moves in a milieu where flattery and parasitism abound—although, unlike his descendant Malevole, he refuses to indulge in either.

In the final analysis, as far as literary history is concerned, it is perhaps melancholy—derived from the novels of men like Sidney, Lodge, Greene, and Lyly, and found in plays like The Rare Triumphs—which, aided to the other characteristics we have delineated, produced the earliest stage malcontents, of which Bomelio is one.

This literary phenomenon may well reflect contemporary cultural trends. The eighties were the period in which the so-called "Elizabethan younger generation," the sons of Elizabeth's older courtiers were coming of age. Frustrated in their attempts to supplant their elders, angered by the growth of flattery and parasitism at Elizabeth's court, and discouraged by the aging Queen's growing conservatism and their own parents' distrust of ambition, various members of this generation turned to romantic fiction as a means of reasserting the idealism they found lacking in the increasingly materialistic court. They thus established escapist realms into which their frustrated imaginations could move, and cultivated literary melancholy as a means of reflecting their own (frequently university-bred) melancholy at not obtaining the preferments formerly given their elders.

In a play such as The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune these concerns enter the world of the drama. In a sense, the early malcontent can be seen as representing both the frustrated melancholy of the younger generation and a romanticized version of their suppressed ambition, desire for power and eagerness to revenge themselves upon the flatterers they felt to be swarming about the court.

Potentially “Malcontent” themselves, members of this younger generation allowed their personal melancholy fuller range in their literary works and produced surrogates like Bomelio, who, drunk with melancholy, seeks a reordering of priorities which would produce, at least in the idealized world of the play, a kind of contentedness. Thus it is that the author of The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune allows his hero's melancholy to push Bomelios desire for revenge to the extreme:

Eternal gods, that know my true Intent,
And how unjustly wrongéd I have been,
Vouchsafe all secret dangers to prevent,
And further me, as yet you do begin.
Sufficeth you my travail heretofore,
My hungers cold, and all my former pain.
Here make an end, and plague me now no more:
Contented [italics mine], then, at rest I will remain. (206)


As You Like It - Rare Triumphs

Ernst writes (from Northport, Maine):

Ladies and Gentlepods,

My special interest in As You Like It is, of course, how the play fits in to the development of the stage malcontent, of which Jacques is a major part.

I believe the stage malcontent developed out of romances—both written (Sidney’s Arcadia, Lyly’s Euphues, Greene’s Romances, etc.), and dramatic (Lodge’s and Lyly’s plays—primarily). I include my dissertation discussion of a relatively early play (1582) that seems to me to contain an important "malcontent"— although he is never named as such (the first dramatic use of the word "malcontent" comes in a Lyly play of 1584, in which two minor characters banter: "Are you a male-content? No, I’m a fe-male content."

The term "malcontent" was pretty frequently used during the ‘80s. Greene writes of having toured Europe and come home to "Ruffle out my silks as a malcontent," a use of the term suggestive of what I take as a vogue among University and law-school students, not unlike the "punks" or "Goths" of our own time. These young men wore black, brooded publicly, felt quietly superior, read satirical or philosophical books, had often traveled, had a liking for bitter satire—often attacking women—and dressed sloppily, often crossing their arms and wearing black.

It was a popular pose—so much so that when Hamlet asks his friends not to let on to his post-Ghost disguise, his audience knew that he was going to cross his arms, start reading a philosophical book, and unlace his black clothes a bit.

The romances of the '80s and early '90s very often consisted of a court that retires to the pastoral world, where things change and odd characters appear, who eventually solve their various problems and return to civilization. The play I discuss herewith is a fine example of how this sort of arrangement could play out on the stage—complete with its own proto-malcontent.
There was increasing bitterness about the regime as Elizabeth’s reign drew toward a close. Sure, the victory over the Armada brightened things up a bit; but, on the other hand, the death of Elizabeth’s most admired "Renaissance Man," Sir Philip Sidney, in 1586 seemed a waste. Crops were often bad. Too many were graduating from the law schools and the universities for the jobs open to them (hence, a number turned to writing), and even older sons found making their way into the Elizabethan establishment difficult (think of Orlando’s problems with his brother).

As a result, the urge for satire grew increasingly during the late 1580s and '90s. Marlowe’s plays were actually quite satirical (or, at least, filled with political advice) as were Kyd’s. Lyly got himself fired around 1586—probably for coming too close to "advising" the Queen in his romances (which were all variants on Elizabeth’s court).

Indeed, a group of satirical writers including George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (Marston = "mar stone" = castrator = kinser (a castrator of sheep) = kin to a satyr = kinsader (also a castrator), which is the pen name Marston used in his satires. There was a wild outpouring of verse and prose satires in the late '90s—so much that satire writing was banned—with the partial result the above-mentioned three satirists turned to (generally satirical) playwriting—mostly for boys’companies, popular with the educated and upper classes.

The satires these three wrote never directly attacked the Elizabethan establishment, but they readily attacked many of the types the satirists saw moving about their world. In one such satire, Marston established the character of Bruto, the malcontent, whom he describes at some length.

This, then, was the world for which Shakespeare wrote As You Like It. And, of course, he seems unable to have avoided putting a malcontent satirist into the middle of it. Thus the conversation between Jacques and Duke Senior is similar to the discussions going on at the time, and the "All the world’s a stage" set-piece was similar to some of Bruto’s (and others’) spoutings, only a heck of a lot better.

One thing that is remarkable to me is that this is the first instance (I think) in which Shakespeare pulled a voguish (somewhat literary) contemporary character into his play—specifically. I might note that, as the above-mentioned satirists turned to playwrights they were—at this very moment—moving in the direction of "Humors" play, plays containing a number of "humorous" (i.e. "type,") flat characters.

Chapman was the first one to do this; however, Jonson took over the idea and wrote a number of plays containing such characters. The notion was that such characters were "in their humor" and the play’s dramatic action revolved around their being got "out" of their various "humors." Jonson usually did this by creating a central, righteously noble, character (quite like himself), who helped arrange things so that the humors characters would be made fools of or suffer some sort of miserable defeat that shook them into reforming themselves. After a while, other playwrights grew a bit tired of Jonson’s personal self-pride (and that of his central characters)—so that they started to make fun of him. This led to the "War of the Theaters," but that is another story.

Shakespeare is said to have "put Jonson down" at some point. If such a thing occurred in any of his plays, I wonder whether or not the self-imporant, judgmental, and humorless Malvolio was not taken as an attack on Jonson by some.

So one could argue that Shakespeare went, in As You Like It, from borrowing one "humors" character from the world and writers about him to, in Twelfth Night, borrowing a whole raft of flat humors characters to be "got out of their humor" in the course of the play—a play whose title suggests 12 days of bingeing, after which period most of us would probably be very likely to change our ways. (One could carry this a step further by suggesting that Hamlet is also a "humors" play—as Hamlet is, like Viola, surrounded by a bunch of relatively flat characters who, like all the narrow-minded, stupidly stubborn obsessives we encounter daily, are especially difficult to deal with.)

Both Jacques and Malvolio go off at the end of their plays—although one feels Malvolio as a far more dangerous person in a far more dangerous world. More on this when we get to Twelfth Night. I also sometimes wonder if, at one point while As You Like It was a-making, Shakespeare didn’t consider making the OTHER Jacques, Orlando’s and Oliver’s third brother, into his malcontent/satirist. He was, after all, a "student," and, as I have suggested above, too much education can produce a malcontent’s world view. Fortunately, Shakespeare didn’t follow through on this. It would probably have pushed the DeBoys family complications over the edge.

On the As You Like It we watched at the Globe. It was a solid production, much praised in the press. We sat way to the side, and so it was hard to get the perspective from the front. Both Jacques and Touchstone appeared to be relatively young—in their early thirties, I would say. Jacques seemed much less a grumpf than I might have expected (never having seen the play); rather he acted benevolent and friendly throughout. Touchstone was a lusty young man. He didn’t pronounce the gloriously dirty "Hour to hour" speech as broadly in the direction of "whore to whore" as I would have expected, but the audience seemed to get it. I thought the Rosalind character was a bit TOO boyish. She was played by a quite boyish actress. I had little sense of the woman underneath the disguise. One of the most enjoyable characters, one we might barely notice on the written page was Amiens, the singer, who was about fifty (although thin and fit) and had a lovely tenor voice. He drew out the songs a bit—moving back and forth along the apron of the stage as he sang. Delightful.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

RE: As You Like It - No Evil Shall Escape My Sight

Derek writes:

Brief reply: I read Lodge's "Rosalynde" a few years ago, and was struck mainly by how straightforwardly Lodge recapitulates the forms and standards of classical comedy, with much more weight given to eclogues between shepherds, and so on. I also remember being entirely underwhelmed by the title character of the play, who bears little resemblance to the one that eventually emerges in Shakespeare's version. I don't remember a thing, really, about the villains in the story, sadly.

But it turns out that I misquoted Bloom, and so please allow me to correct myself. He in fact writes, "Rosalind's high good fortune ― which exalts her over Falstaff, Hamlet, and Cleopatra ― is to stand at the center of a play in which no authentic harm can come to anyone… The glory of Rosalind, and of her play, is her confidence, and ours, that all things will go well."

Bloom spends considerable time in the passage leading into the one I quoted above talking about why scholars have focused for a long time on Falstaff and Hamlet, and what the nature of their deaths have had to teach us. I guess I did a little inferring and came up with the idea that although…

Oh WAIT! He DOES say what I thought he said, only a few pages later! Quoth Harold Bloom: "I have been urging us to see Rosalind in sequence, between Falstaff and Hamlet, just as witty and as wise but trapped neither in history with Falstaff nor in tragedy with Hamlet, and yet larger in her drama even as they cannot be confined to theirs." ― compliment, right? But no! ― "The invention of freedom must be measured against what encloses or threatens freedom: time and the state for Falstaff, the past and the enemy within for Hamlet. Rosalind's freedom may seem less consequential because As You Like It brushes aside time and the state, and Rosalind has no tragic sorrows, no Prince Hal, and no Gertrude or Ghost. Rosalind is her own context, unchallenged save for the melancholy Jaques and the rancid Touchstone." And that's the end of the paragraph ― in fact, of the whole section. Although he says that Rosalind's freedom "may SEEM less consequential," which implies that it really isn't any less consequential, he sure doesn't do a thing to make the reader think that the way her freedom seems is any different from the way it truly is.

That's the passage wherein Bloom dismisses the presence of evil ― that which encloses or threatens freedom. And my contention remains. That Rosalind doesn't take it seriously, or that she behaves MOST of the time like she doesn't take it seriously, does NOT mean that the play as a whole "brushes aside" evil. It's Rosalind who brushes it aside. That was my point, I think.

Thank goodness I hadn't packed up the Bloom yet, as I'm filling box after box with books. And I have a tiny collection compared to certain others of this group. Randall, never move.


As You Like It - No Evil Shall Escape My Sight

Randall writes:

Arden-t readers,

Derek started us off by stating that one of As You Like It's great points "is that, for once, there really is evil." I've been thinking about evil and Shakespeare for some time, and evil itself fascinates me in all its literary incarnations.

For example, I taught a class today in which students are writing an analytical essay on Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' Green Lantern, issue 76 (1970), and they are trying to discern what is remarkable about the comic's story. One idea that emerges pretty quickly is that, as a student named Conor put it in the last session, "evil doesn't always have to don a costume and have super powers; normal evil people have fairly similar goals to normal people, only with more devious ways of achieving them." Today, I noticed a couple students were throwing the "evil" word around somewhat carelessly, so I asked them to make sure the explained what they meant by "evil" if it was going to be a focus of their essays.

Over on the Shakespeare Geek blog, Duane is asking readers to consider which Shakespeare villains suffer no guilt for their actions. He writes:

"It’s easy to find ways in which Shakespeare’s villains feel guilt for their actions, whether it’s Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, or Claudius’ outright 'My offense is rank, it smells to heaven' prayer. Should we count Edmund’s last minute redemption, too?

"What I’m interested in is bad guys who feel no guilt at all. I was trying to explain to my boss last week why Iago is such a nasty son-of-a-gun, and I realized that when it comes to his actual crimes, there are other bad guys that did far worse. It’s just something about him. I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that, as far as I can tell, he never feels a shred of anything for his victim, right up until the last words we hear. That’s what’s so scary."

I think Duane's question gets to the heart of evil, that to be evil, not just to do evil, demands that one knowingly act to the detriment of others without remorse. In the golden and silver ages of the comic book world, stories are full of villains bent on world domination, the destruction of the human race, theft of various items for no other purpose than to perpetrate the theft, etc. Just evil. Frequently, a character in a comic will refer to the villain as an "evil-doer," a term few outside the comic book world actually use (except our former president who once said, "My administration has a job to do and we're going to do it. We will rid the world of evil-doers.").

In the Green Lantern issue, a slumlord named Jubal Slade is evicting impoverished, elderly, immigrant residents so he can convert the property to a profitable parking lot. He asks Green Lantern, "You expect me to pass [up] a fat profit 'cause a lot of worthless old geeks are gonna get rained on?" The question is rhetorical, and if we focus on his use of the word "worthless" we can see that Slade is more than just an uncaring businessman, he's a misanthropist. The story is entitled "No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!" (comic books are all about exclamation points), and O'Neil's scenario connects Slade with the title's "evil"; he is the remorseless villain. And an actual criminal ― he tries to have Green Lantern's pal Green Arrow assassinated. I'm sure you visual pun lovers would enjoy the story's final scene in which Green Lantern, who can make the green beam that emanates from his power ring take any shape he wants, transports Slade to prison pinned in a giant rat trap.

We've previously noted the presence of dark undercurrents in Shakespeare's comedies ― Duke Solinus's death sentence for Egeon at the beginning of Comedy of Errors, Egeus's demand that Hermia either marry Demetrius or be put to death in Midsummer Night's Dream, Shylock's determination to kill Antonio if his bond is not paid in Merchant of Venice, Don John's parthenogenic villainy in Much Ado About Nothing. Derek's claim ― that the villainy in As You Like It achieves the level of evil, that this evil outweighs the villainy of Shakespeare's other comedies, and that in threatening the power of goodness and virtue, evil carries the play closer to tragedy than we expect comedy to go ― relies on a fairly severe assessment of Duke Frederick and Orlando's brother, Oliver. This assessment is not as simple as it might sound. Ernst has suggested that one of the great qualities of Shakespeare is that he has endowed his characters, no matter how small, with clear motivation. And motivation, especially if it relies on a connection to some moral or legal foundation, to my mind, is the enemy of evil.

Solinus must obey the law, which forbids that Syracusians caught in Ephesus, die. What's more the law has a twin in Syracuse. What's more Solinus clearly feels conflicted about the law. His decision, then, to condemn Egeon is not evil, although it is misguided.

Egeus also has the law ("the ancient privilege of Athens") to rely on and one might argue he has no intention of having Hermia put to death, that rather he expects his appeal to Theseus will result in Hermia's obedience. What's more to Egeus, it is Hermia's disobedience that is the transgression. As Thesus explains to Hermia, "to you, your father should be as a god," and gods must be obeyed.

Shylock also has the law (do we detect a theme here), his bond, and it takes some pretty semantic slight of hand by Portia to free Antonio of its stipulation. Shylock cannot be evil unless we see him as deliberately undermining the legal system in order to kill Antonio, and while that may have been the way one saw him in the 17th century when his Vice characteristics would have highlighted his villainy, it's hard to look past Shylock's explanations for the fatal consequence of forfeiture ― that he and his people are spit upon by the likes of Antonio and that those who make the laws do not see jews as people ("if you prick us…") or respect their traditions (i.e. lending). There is righteousness as well as cleverness in his revenge (the kind of thing Europeans have celebrated in folk tales for centuries, I might add).

Setting aside, for the time being, Don John, we come to As You Like It. In the three previous examples, none of the "evil-doers" thinks he is doing evil. But in Duke Frederick and Oliver, as Derek suggests, we find both the logic and the evasiveness of villainy. One might argue that Oliver is a lot like Egeus. Despite his brutish treatment of Orlando, he has the law, of primogeniture, on his side. His father's will works against Oliver's behavior somewhat, but he is the inheritor of the estate and has near absolute power over it. But Oliver goes outside the law's power and plots to have Orlando killed. To do so, he lies to Charles the wrestler, claiming that Orlando is "a secret and villainous contriver against me, his natural brother," a calumny more true of Oliver than Orlando. What's more, Oliver knows what he is doing is morally wrong:

"I hope I shall see an en end of [Orlando], for my soul ― yet I know not why ― hates nothing more than he. Yet he's gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved, and indeed so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprized" (1.1.161-168).

This recognition of Orlando's qualities is extraordinary and, coupled with Oliver's confusion about his hate's source, indicates the older brother's awareness of his own turpitude. Neither Shylock, nor Solinus, nor Egeus ever claim to not understand why he wanted something that might result in the death of another.

Duke Frederick, as we often find in Shakespeare, echoes Oliver's experience. He also has a brother he hates and has found a way to drive him out. He does not, though, have the law on his side; he is a usurper, so he's already off the moral path. After the wrestling match, when he explains his animosity toward Orlando, his rationalization directly parallels Oliver's about Orlando: "The world esteemed thy father honorable,/ But I did find him still my enemy" (1.2.220-221). Evil, here, is that which willfully does wrong against the innocent, even in the face of general recognition of the victim's virtue. To fully compare As You Like It to Comedy of Errors, Midsummer, and Merchant, we might also look at the virtue of Egeon, Hermia, and Antonio, but I suspect that none of them are as spotless as Orlando and Duke Senior.

So I think Derek is right, that As You Like It opposes its heroes and heroines with something closer to evil than most of Shakespeare's previous comedies. I would argue that Two Gentlemen of Verona, specifically Proteus's machinations against Valentine and Julia, approaches the level of evil we find here. And then there's Don John, who for me is not a three-dimensional character as the others we've discussed are. Instead he's more of a stock character, malcontent or vice or what have you, and I guess I would ask if that qualifies his evil, which is every bit as repugnant as that we see in Duke Frederick and Oliver. Don John would be at home in a Green Lantern comic book.

I'm not sure what Harold Bloom means by "suffers," and specifically I'm confused by his application of the term to Rosalind (although I haven't read the article which Derek quotes). Is her expulsion from the court her burden? I'd agree that it doesn't seem that evil, but again, it's not what one does but what one is, that invokes the evil. Oliver's suggestion that it is his soul that hates Orlando is provocative. But it suggests that evil comes from deep within and is subject to no external law.

What accounts, if anything, for this difference in seriousness of Shakespeare's comedies? What has happened to the concerns about law? As we move on, does this growing presence of evil in non-tragic story suggest an evolving way of looking at comedy, at the world? Does any one know Lodge's "Rosalynde" and what it makes of these characters?

Not looking for any trouble,

Monday, July 13, 2009

As You Like It - Performance Log (July 2009)

As You Like It
The Strange Capers
directed by Randy Reyes
Boom Island, Minneapolis
July 12, 2009

At dinner on Sunday, Maren, my 10-year-old, asks me, "What was your favorite part of the play, dad?" It takes me five minutes to come up with an answer.

Is it when Orlando (Max Polski) and Charles the wrestler (Josh Fazeli) face off in their death match, slap hands together, then simultaneously chant "1-2-3-4, I declare a thumb war!" (which is, I notice, pentameter if not iambic)? Or when Orlando subsequently defeats Charles by tickling him until he passes out?

Is it when, at the end of Act I and the last scene in Duke Frederick's court which as been staged in a sweltering, concrete clearing lacking comfortable seating, the entire audience is asked to get up and walk a hundred yards to a grassy, shaded clearing (the Forest of Arden) for the remainder in the play?

Is it when Celia (Christian Bardin), groping for an alias, stumbles over the name she chooses, pronouncing it "alien … uh," and then it becomes a running gag and that's what she gets called for the rest of the play?

Is it that 19 characters are played by nine actors, providing us with a variety of interesting, often cross-dressed parallels and juxtapositions? Audrey, for example, played by the same actor who played Charles, in a skimpy dress and a ridiculous set of blond braids and a little girl voice belying his six-foot, 200 pound frame. Or Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, played by the same woman (Sigrid Sutter), one dressed all in black, the other all in white.

Or is it the playful rendering of the play's songs, as the upbeat ones Amiens (Julie Kurtz) sings, accompanying herself on the ukulele?

It's hard to pick out a stand-out moment, and in a way it's hard to put one's finger on the moment when this production of As You Like It really comes together. In The Rake, a local magazine, Kate Iverson asked director Randy Reyes what one might expect from his production. "First of all," he said, "it won't be a 'puffy pants' production. I've never understood companies that do outdoor theater in heavy costumes." And so there are no puffy pants in the show. Instead there are funny hats ― sombreros, fedoras, baseball caps on backwards ― and one character wearing a funny nose and glasses. I think this is a good metaphor for the production; everyone's trying on something humorous and playful, and some of it fits and some of it doesn't. Why, for example, does Corin seem so devoted to Bocce?

What works best for me are a few images that emerged naturally from the setting. It is this particular theatrical space itself ― the park ― that Reyes' production celebrates and from which it gets its energy. In the court, for example, the audience sits on either side of the square. The actors perform between us moving back and forth on the grid-like concrete (or should I say grid-dle) in straight lines. Moving to the "Forest," the audience arranges itself in a wide semi-circle and the actors tend to move in circular patterns, sometimes running in circles around the entire periphery of the clearing. This spatial delineation of court and pastoral setting, I thought, was very moving. And I would add to that the simple experience of sitting under a tree on the grass watching this celebration of rural life with the tall reminders of city life in the form of downtown Minneapolis starkly visible across the Mississippi River.

Reyes is clearly thinking about the differences between the two settings. In addition to audience location and character costuming (the court dress is dark and formal; the forest is white and/or casual), he calls attention to the difference by beginning and ending the play with very different dances. This As You Like It opens with a very structured dance, the actors moving back and forth and diagonally together in a block, taking stiff off-kilter mannequin-like poses. They freeze as Orlando begins his opening complaint. In the forest at the end, the actors form a line and sing the final verse of Hymen's "wedding song," but in as informal a style as possible, appending a sort of Hawaiian chorus to it. Why the wikki wacki stuff? I don't know. But it was light and frothy, a clear contrast to our impression of court life.

All the playfulness, even in the court where Charles and Orlando's fight (which ostensibly is supposed to end with Orlando's being maimed) becomes silly, tends to run roughshod over the play's darker themes. That seems fine with The Strange Capers. This production is comedy through and through, and one leaves with the impression there'll be no returning to the dreary and depressing court. Duke Frederick's repentance and conversion is edited out. Rosalind and Orlando are dressed in white and dancing in the park.

And I think, in the end, my favorite part of The Strange Capers' performance is its existence itself, that there are now, with Cromulent and Chameleon Theatre Circle, three free summer Shakespeare-in-the-park companies in the Twin Cities area. As long as The Strange Capers is devoted to finding entertaining ways to put Shakespeare on, something memorable will always emerge.

For Maren, it was the ukulele.

Logged by Randall

Photo: Emily Shain as Rosalind and Max Polski as Orlando in The Strange Capers's As You Like It. Photo from rehearsal by Amanda Hanson.