Thursday, October 25, 2012

Saint Crispin's Day 2012

Well... we've come to another 25 October again... and I've woefully neglected my blog. Let's just say there's been a dearth of Shakespeare in my life recently. But it's Saint Crispin's day... and this time I thought I'd put up several different versions of Henry V's Saint Crispin's Day speech.

This first video has four versions in it. It starts with Sir Larry from 1944, then goes to David Gwillim (1979), followed by Michael Pennington (1989), and finally Sir Kenneth Branagh (also in 1989). 


Next, we'll go back to 1951 with just the audio of Richard Burton's performance.

And then we'll wrap it all up with the newest one: Tom Hiddleston from The Hollow Crown: Henry V (BBC 2012).

So... what do you think? Who do you think captured the feel of the thing best? Who would you follow into a hopeless-looking battle? Don't be shy! (I was really surprised by my reactions to all 6 of these!) I'd love to hear your thoughts. :-D

Cheers... and happy Saint Crispin's Day!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Princes and Theatre Groups Have to Grow Up

Review of Post5 Theatre’s Henry IV Part 1 (31 August 2012)

Perhaps I’m more of an English Prof than a Theatre Critic. My first criteria when looking at a play is not “How well did this production hold together?” or “How well did the actors bring life to their characters?” or “How entertaining was this?” but “How well does this production adhere to the text?”

I realize that your Joe Blow Theater Patron couldn’t really care less about the text, seeing it – if he sees it at all – as only the backdrop to an entertaining evening out.

But especially where Shakespeare is concerned, messing with the text bothers me every time. Why? Because Shakespeare worked hard to make his plays “hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show Virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” He carefully crafted his words, characters and scenes to get at something specific. And when that is ignored, or worse still, deliberately altered, a great disservice is done to the play, the audience and even the actors.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I realize that there’s a lot of room for interpretation and individuality when producing Shakespeare. So I’m not at all bothered by variant readings or alternate views of a play. But when one’s concept or one’s own ideas about how things could be done trump the text, that’s where I draw the line.

And that’s what bothered me the most about Post5 Theatre’s Henry IV Part 1 – it messed with the text, and because of that, missed the whole point of the play. Subtly (but deliberately, because you can’t switch the order of scenes around without doing it on purpose) they shifted the focus from Prince Hal to Falstaff… and instead of a Growing Up and Taking Responsibility Story, it became so much less. The new “final scene” (they ended with Act V Scene 4 instead of 5) left me feeling like the take-away was “Living a debauched life isn’t so bad as long as you know the right people and are in the right place at the right time” – although I will say that I don’t feel like the entire show backed that point up.

The problem is that the ending of anything is extremely important. In a play, it’s the last thing the audience sees. It’s the image that sticks with them. Shakespeare started and ended the play with the King (Henry IV) speaking, and I think it’s significant that the last voice we hear is Hal’s father accepting him and finally giving him the respect and responsibility that belongs to a prince. You miss all that when Falstaff gets the last word, and it isn’t a sincere one.

The very modern, rather American setting also contributed to the obfuscation of Shakespeare’s point. I lost any sense of royalty, of the fate of the nation hanging in the balance. And giving Henry IV the feel of a president instead of a king diminished the importance of the worthiness of the heir to the throne. Presidents don’t pass their office on to their oldest sons. In fact, as the play went on, I grew more and more convinced that this wasn’t about kings, but about crime lords or rival gangs. The ubiquity of the biker theme didn’t help this at all.

Why should Hal grow up and set aside his “friendships” with his biker buddies? Why should he clean up his act and stop all the drinking, drugs and debauchery? What’s the incentive? I got absolutely no sense of “someday you will be king, and you need to start acting like one.” In fact, when Henry IV is dressing Hal down in what should be a very moving scene and a definite turning point in the play, the king pulls out a bottle of Johnny Walker and starts drinking. Maybe I’m too picky, but my first thought was, “Double standards much?”

The overriding thought behind this production seemed to be (in my humble opinion), “We, the cast and crew, are going to have fun!” Great. I have nothing wrong with that. I have often dreamed of doing theatre, first and foremost because it looks like so much fun. But that fun must be tempered by the text. You have to have some reason for doing something other than, “It’s fun.” When you start making decisions based on what would be “fun,” you always have to double check them against the text.

Sure, to some people it might be a lot of fun to portray the Douglas (Samuel Dinkowitz) as the head of a biker gang. But in doing so, you lose the idea that he represents the power of Scotland, which, last time I checked, is a little more than just a biker gang.

In this same vein, I found the extra-textual asides (random modern non-Shakespearean insertions) amusing at first, but they quickly got tedious and detracted from the beauty of the language. While it might be fun to put them in, is it worth the constant reminders to the audience that Shakespeare’s language isn’t the same as today’s? Shouldn’t you be trying to help the audience feel at home in the language and forget that it’s different?

I don’t blame any of this on the actors at all. In fact, much of the acting was superb. Orion Bradshaw’s Hotspur was fiery and impetuous and so intense it was almost frightening… when it wasn’t funny. Brenan Dwyer played up to him as Lady Percy and complemented his passion nobly. Phillip J. Bernes was marvelous as Francis the drug dealer, but even more impressive as John of Lancaster – a bit part, but an important one. Michael Godsey was thoroughly conniving and evil as Worcester, making Hotspurs passionate rebellion look almost innocent by comparison with his own cold-blooded, calculating villainy. Jeff Gorham made a respectable King (or President?) Henry IV and brought an air of maturity and gravity to his part.

I save Ty Boice’s Prince Hal for last because, though he did an excellent job, he just wasn’t quite able to assert his presence over that of Falstaff (Rusty Tennant). Again, it felt like the “let’s have fun with this” mentality won out over the text, because Falstaff just turned into so huge a presence that Hal’s part was necessarily diminished.

This is possibly the genesis of the question of who the play is really about and the muddling of Shakespeare’s point. There is a delicate balance between Hal and Falstaff as characters. Get that out of alignment, and the whole play shifts.

The problems I have with this production come more from how the play was conceived by director Don Alder (and possibly by the vision of Post5 Theatre in general?) than from individual performance (with the possible exception of Tennant’s Falstaff). And maybe I’m being overly critical of the whole thing. I doubt many people even realized that the production missed the whole point of the play. But isn’t that even more reason to uphold the text? Don’t you have a responsibility to your audience to give as accurate a representation of the play as you can?

Post5 Theatre reminds me a lot of Prince Hal, actually: They have a responsibility – a responsibility both to their audiences and to the plays themselves. They also have a lot of potential to be able to fulfill those responsibilities. But until they stop doing things “just for fun” and start giving the texts the respect they deserve, they will not be major players in the theatre world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Whirligig of Time -- Perception and Reality in Twelfth Night

Review of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Twelfth Night (11 August 2012)

I had a hard time starting this review of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Twelfth Night. On the one hand, I absolutely adored the production. “Beautiful” was the word I used the most when describing it to friends. But I find that I run out of adjectives very quickly with a play like this: It’s brilliant: the costumes are stunning, the music sensational, the sets lovely, the timing perfect, all the characters amazing, and every performance inspired. I loved it, and can think of very little that could be improved. So I feel like I don’t have a whole lot to say.

On the other hand, the play has produced deep thoughts in me… and I’ve been tempted to wax philosophical. But that opens up a Pandora’s Box of ideas that have less to do with this particular production. So I have too much to say… and that too much is not quite to the point.

But… this is theatre. And the purpose of theatre is communication. And communication is worthless if it doesn’t communicate Ideas. Shakespeare’s plays – even the comedies – are not just plots and characters and settings, but vehicles for Ideas. And if a particular production (this one, for instance) can spark these big Ideas in a viewer, then it has done its job and done it well. So, really, the philosophy isn’t so much off topic after all.

A friend overheard another audience member say, “Isn’t it amazing how they make it feel so contemporary and modern?” I laugh, not because whoever said this was off base, but because they were so spot-on. But here’s the thing: It’s not this production. Sure, director Avital Shira had her stellar (ooh! There’s another superlative adjective!) cast deliver the lines with a fresh, modern feel. But the reason it works so well is that the characters that Shakespeare created are as much at home in the 21st century as they were in the 17th. People haven’t changed. Guys were melodramatic, lovelorn idiots then (Orsino), and they are now. Girls were apt to fall quick and hard for someone at the least provocation (Olivia), and they are now. There will always be self-important, pig-headed jerks in positions of authority (Malvolio), and we will always rejoice when they get their comeuppance.

Twelfth Night works so well because we all know the characters from our own lives. How many long conversations have I had with my Orsino guy friends, so blinded by what they want that they can’t see what they could have? How many times have I, myself, been Olivia – wanting the unattainable and acting like a complete idiot in an effort to attain it?

No one escapes censure in Twelfth Night. And that’s what makes it work so well. It’s a play about contrasts – wisdom and folly, men and women, perception and reality – but mostly perception and reality. We all have a preferred version of reality… the way we’d like things to be. And it’s this perception that blinds us to the way things actually are.

In true Shakespearean tradition, the only person who really knows what’s what in the play is Feste, the fool, played charmingly in this production by Carson Cook. Cook made it obvious that he knew exactly what was going on – that “Cesario” is really a girl; that Orsino’s love for Olivia isn’t going to last; that Olivia’s mourning for her brother is more of an excuse (though perhaps not a conscious one) to be moody than true, deep-seated grief.

Of course, Shakespeare’s device (making the “fool” the wise one) brings up the contrast between wisdom and folly, and reminds us that when we think we are wise, that’s when we’re the most foolish. This comes out in practically every character in Twelfth Night to some extent or another, but most in Malvolio (played by Arthur Delaney). Malvolio’s perception is that everyone loves him (despite much evidence to the contrary), and this makes him particularly susceptible to the practical jokes played on him by Maria (Jennifer Elkington), Sir Toby Belch (Will Steele), Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek (Max Maller) and Feste. Once again, in true Shakespearean tradition, the villain is hoist by his own petard, and when the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, we may feel a little sorry for the “madly-used Malvolio,” but we recognize that he brought it upon himself. Delaney did a particularly good job throughout of making Malvolio so obnoxious that I, like Maria, could “hardly forbear hurling things at him,” and that made the ending more palatable.

I could go on in this philosophical bent, but I don’t want to try your patience. So I’ll end with a few notes about this production.

Zach Virden made an awesome Orsino. And Britt Harris did a lovely job as Viola / Cesario. The two of them have some delightfully awkward moments as the relationship between master and confidant threatens to turn into something else. In fact, the entire play is filled with wonderful awkwardness – which is, I suppose, one of the chief reasons a girl dressed as a guy worked so well in so many Shakespeare plays.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful music written by Amir Shirazi and very well performed by the entire cast. Bravo.

For those of you who are wondering about appropriateness and such, just know that at one point Olivia comes out wrapped in a sheet (a very long, very opaque sheet… but still… it implies… you know). I understand how they came to that interpretation, though I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. Also the “intermission music” is a slightly risqué drinking song. Those are my only real concerns… and by comparison to the rest of the show, they are very small.

Bravo to the entire cast and crew for an outstanding job and one of my favorite productions all year! And thanks for making me think! 

This production runs through Labor Day weekend. Visit for dates and locations.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

One Year

One year ago today I started this blog with a collection of haiku summarizing Shakespeare plays. Wow. That seems like forever ago. And just yesterday I passed the 2,000 visits mark... which may not seem like all that much, but to someone who was just looking for a place to chronicle her obsession with Shakespeare, it's kind of amazing.

This has been a fun adventure, and I fully intend to keep going. Not only does it help me think through the productions I see, but it also gives me a place to vent my thoughts that just won't go away. I've thought some (for me) Deep Literary Thoughts (the Robin Hood post, the Shakespeare Birthday post, the One Reason I Love Shakespeare post) and had quite a bit of fun with the Bard, too. Interestingly enough, the Horrible Histories and Shakespearean Insults post is the most popular of all time. Who knew?

So, that's about all for now. Thanks for stopping by! Drop me a note. I love hearing from fellow Shakespeare Nerds.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Not Much Ado

Review of Willamette Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (4 August 2012)

When Claudio asks Benedick what he thinks of Hero, Benedick replies, “Why, i' faith, methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise and too little for a great praise: only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome; and being no other but as she is, I do not like her” (1.1.167-172). In other words… she just doesn’t do it for me.
And that was exactly how I felt about Willamette Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s hard to pin down what didn’t work for me. There were a lot of good things about the production, and yet, it fell flat.

Jason Maniccia was one of the highlights. His Benedick was solid, and he looked at home in the part. I could believe in all of Benedick’s changing moods – his self-confidence, his mockery, his frustration with Beatrice, his love-induced melancholy and his puppy love. My only disappointment was that he could have made so much more of the eavesdropping scene, but that is probably more director Daniel Somerfield’s fault.

Ithica Tell made a smart, sassy Beatrice. She made the 400-year-old puns and wordplays feel fresh and spontaneous and biting. But I could never really buy the bit where Beatrice is in love with Benedick. And unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast didn’t play up to her energy level, and so she felt out of place. I would really like to see her in some fast-paced, high-energy productions. I think she would be brilliant.

This production, however, was not fast-paced or high-energy.

Chris Ringkamp’s Claudio was eager and innocent and young and in love, but Holly Wigmore’s flat performance of Hero gave him nothing to work with. Where Chris really shone was as one of the watch, where he could play more of a comic role, and where the other actors’ energy was infectious.

Most of that energy came from Clara-Liis Hillier (Constable Dogberry) and Lauren Modica (Verges) who absolutely stole the show. Every moment they were on stage was a gem. Their timing, their expressions, the way they stayed so wonderfully in character when the focus was not necessarily on them – they were wonderful! And costume designer Clare Parker did a bang-up job with their costumes, too. I particularly loved Dogberry’s skunk necktie with the squeaker, and Verges’s fez.

Composer and musician Jason Okamoto also deserves praise for his beautiful music (performed by him and Ali Ippolito). It gave just the right flavor and helped create the mood where other aspects failed.

One of the main problems with this production was the timing. Was it really necessary to break up the flow of the whole thing by having stagehands rearrange the benches every scene? It didn’t contribute to the sense of location or setting, and it killed what little energy there was in the last scene. If the benches absolutely have to be moved, why not have the actors do it as part of their scene? Another timing issue was that actors would often do their actions and then speak their lines – but not at the same time. Guys? We’re not that interested in watching you play a game of lawn bowls. And when the play has a lot of talking in it, you don’t want to drag it out any more than necessary.

So timing was a problem. Lack of energy was a problem. Several poor performances contributed to the overall lack of sparkle. In general, I found it a good time to work on my quilt. Which is saying something on a 100-degree day.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hamlet... in a Cemetery

Review of PAE’s Hamlet (14 July 2012)

To begin their 43rd season, Portland Actors Ensemble took a straightforward, streamlined Hamlet and set it in Portland’s oldest cemetery – Lone Fir Cemetery. The setting was magical. To watch a play that echoes unceasingly with the inevitability of death while surrounded by tombstones is an amazing experience.

The cast had to work hard to live up to the setting, and in many cases they succeeded. The entire production was fast-paced and intense. Occasionally the intensity seemed over-the-top for those of us with front-row seats, but it was necessary with audiences in the hundreds night after night.

Manipulation oozed from every angle of this play – Old Hamlet’s Ghost (Mark Rothwell) manipulating his son, Polonius (Curt Hanson) manipulating his daughter, Claudius and Gertrude (Mark Rothwell and MaryAnne Glazebrook) manipulating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Samson Syharath and Sam Burns), Claudius manipulating Laertes (Peter Schuyler)… the list goes on and on.

Doug Reynolds was a convincing if young-feeling Hamlet. He made us feel the pressure the character was under – the pressure to be the perfect son (both to his demanding, dead father and to his self-centered, oblivious mother), the perfect prince, and the perfect boyfriend. He had to keep up appearances the entire time and had no one that he could be himself with. Ophelia (played by Kayla Lian) would have been the one person Hamlet could have poured out his heart to, if her brother and father hadn’t gotten in the way. Then Hamlet recognized that she was a chink in his armor and he couldn’t afford the distraction, which provokes the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. But we really did feel that he loved her very much.

Kayla Lian did an amazing job of showing the strain that leads to Ophelia’s madness. It was very clear that, despite his many shortcomings, she loved her father very much. In fact, the whole family dynamic with Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia was touchingly and beautifully done.

Polonius (Curt Hanson) was perfect. He was a believable rather overbearing father and trusted advisor to the king, while at the same time being a tedious windbag. Hanson’s comic timing and delivery were brilliant.

Mark Rothwell’s performance of Claudius was remarkable, also. Every time he was on stage I hated him a little more… and when you’re playing a villain that means you’re doing a good job. He reminded me of a slug, or something that gives you that slimy feeling. He was self-centered and evil with a thin veneer of charm and polish – a perfect stage politician.

The production was filled with wonderful moments – many of them brilliantly awkward and funny. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern excelled at awkward, as did Adam Thompson playing Reynaldo (and various butler-esque minor moments). Charlie Pierce made an excellent gravedigger… and watching someone play with a skeleton in a cemetery was an experience I won’t soon forget!

My main concerns with this production were with bigger conceptual things. For one thing, the way the players were presented bothered me – turning the leading player into a woman and implying some past between Hamlet and her didn’t help my view of Hamlet’s character. Say what you want about princes or college students or whatever, I still feel like it weakened the character and called his relationship with Ophelia into question somewhat. With that kind of history, you almost feel like Laertes and Polonius were right to tell Ophelia to keep her distance.

Director Bruce Hostetler also majorly minimized the Horatio / Hamlet friendship and turned Horatio (Scott Fullerton) into a glorified babysitter the entire time. This did help to isolate Hamlet and require him to put up even more of a façade, but when everyone in the play dies, you kind of want the one person left on stage to be someone you’ve come to love and sympathize with. This didn’t happen.

In fact, the entire second half was plagued with continuity issues because of the way the play was cut down. Now, I totally understand the need to cut the massive play so that people are able to sit through it. And I don’t know how I could have done it myself. But I would not have taken out Hamlet’s encounter with Fortinbras’s army (Act 4 scene 4 – the whole impetus for the “How all occasions do inform against me” speech) or Hamlet’s ill-fated trip to England. I was not convinced by the “Oh, he just decided not to go all of a sudden” way that was handled. When Hamlet forges the letter that sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, it is a significant step in his journey, and not one that can be left out.

The ending (after everyone dies) was also cut down significantly, leaving out what I think of as the zinger – the “this was the point of this story” moment – and weakening the end considerably. I missed
“So shall you hear
of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
and, in this upshot, purposes mistook
fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. All this can I
truly deliver” (5.2.422-428).

So while it was overall a good performance and the actors played their parts very well, the whole thing lacked a cohesive feel and a main point that resonates with the audience as they drive home.

The cemetery was very, very cool, though.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Post5's Dream

Review of Post5 Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (13 July 2012)

The great thing about theatre is that no two perspectives on any one play are the same. Each production I see helps me understand the original better. Each director, designer and actor has his own view of what’s going on, and when you put those all together, you get a unique production that (as long as the perspectives are actually drawn from the script) helps the audience see the play in a way they never have before.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems particularly suited for this. Something about the play itself brings out the quirky creativity in people and lends itself to clever concepts and settings – sometimes a little too clever for the play’s good. But, honestly! What are you supposed to do with fairies, young people, courtiers and laborers-turned-thespians, not to mention magic spells and someone with a donkey’s head?

Post5 Theatre’s Dream took some getting used to. Directors Erica Terpening-Romeo and Caitlin Fisher-Draeger set it in Athens, Georgia, and gave everyone (all the mortals, at least) thick southern accents. Some of the actors handled this better than others, but overall I found I wasn’t a huge fan of listening to Shakespeare’s language with the extra challenge of sorting out an accent. (I’m not going to get into the discussion here of how English sounded in Shakespeare’s day. All I can say is, I didn’t live then.)

The other bit that I took a while to warm up to was their depiction of the fairies, who had some vaguely Native American vibe going on, complete with body paint and feathers. I will admit that the body paint (in fluorescent yellow, orange, green, pink and purple) was fun and funky, and they used it to good effect later on, but especially at the beginning, the fairies were a little too weird for me.

On the other hand, the way the directors had the fairies be present for the whole play, sometimes just watching on the sidelines, sometimes actively participating in bits where Shakespeare doesn’t explicitly have them on stage, was quite clever, and I liked it very much. They provided sound effects and contributed to the general enchantment of everyone else in the forest by occasionally smearing someone with pink or green paint – pink producing love and green envy or anger. While I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare is trying to point out that humans generally need little interference from the fairy world in order to make fools of ourselves, the fairy contribution to the insanity was a nice touch.

The set – a kind of scaffold supported by tree-like structures – provided handy perches for the fairies, and lent itself to some quite entertaining staging. It looked quite versatile, also – very impressive.

The costuming was problematic for me. The fairies wore as little as possible (low slung yoga pants and a bra?), and Helena and Hermia’s tops were inappropriately tight (Helena’s) and low (Hermia’s). That, coupled with over-the-top sexually suggestive physicality, keeps me from recommending the play. Don’t get me wrong: I know what’s going on in the play; I just think that it really doesn’t have to be that R-rated.

Orion Bradshaw’s Puck was a little disturbing at times until I started thinking of the fairy as a little boy who doesn’t know when something is appropriate and when not. From that point on, I enjoyed his performance very much.

The four lovers were quite good, and after a while, even the southern accents worked in this setting – especially with the girls. Jade Hobbs especially threw herself 110 percent into Helena, and did a marvelous job.

And then… the Rude Mechanicals. I nearly laughed myself sick when they were on stage. They were all quite brilliant, but especially Todd Hermanson as Bottom and R. David Willie as Flute. All the preparation for the play within a play was appropriately silly and great, but the play itself threatened to steal the show. From the Lion’s (Andrew Forrest’s) “mane” made out of a tutu to the Wall (David Wade Granmo) slowly melting under its own weight and Quince (Kerry Ryan) the director mouthing everyone’s parts along with them and correcting their pronunciation, it was amazing! And then, after all the silliness, they switched midstream and make the ending poignant and touching… Bravo.

I have yet to see a production of Dream that I am wholly satisfied with – no one’s vision is quite like mine – but each one I see helps me understand the play a little better, and for that, I am grateful. Post5 Theatre’s Dream may not be mine, but I think, under all the awkward accents, ill-conceived costumes and inappropriate actions, they caught the spirit and the heart of the play, as Puck says, “Lord what fools these mortals be.” Sometimes, it’s good to remember that… and to laugh at ourselves.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Measure for Measure -- Mercy and Justice

Review of NWCTC’s Measure for Measure (7-7-2012)

Measure for Measure is not for everyone. The whole plot revolves around what can only be called “adult content.” That being said, however, Shakespeare uses this framework to explore the delicate balance between justice and mercy, much as he does in Merchant of Venice (only better, in my opinion). Shakespeare is obviously thinking back to Matthew 7:1-2, especially where it says, “by your standard of measure it will be measure to you.” Some may be disturbed that in the end Shakespeare’s plea for mercy appears to let everyone off the hook for their lewd behavior, but for me at least, the take-away was more that living according to the spirit of the law is often harder than just blindly adhering to the letter. It’s better to extend mercy and change someone’s life than to cut that life short.

Because of its subject matter, Measure for Measure must be a very difficult play to stage, and yet director Butch Flowers and his talented cast and crew did a tasteful and very good job with it. They successfully navigate around the myriad pitfalls and avoid the temptation to go overboard with the innuendos and raciness. Even the costuming, which in many plays is inappropriate with much less motivation, was modest. If you’re going to have a problem with this play, it will be with Shakespeare’s story, not with Flowers’ vision of it.

Technically the play was beautiful; sets, lighting music and costumes were all just right. Performance-wise, it was brilliant. There wasn’t a single character that didn’t sparkle. Jayson Shanafelt’s intensity and fixity of purpose made for an excellently awful Angelo. Bonnie Auguston’s Isabella was a believable novice nun in an awkward and tight spot. And Chris Porter made an great if somewhat abrupt Duke Vincentio. Joe Healy’s Provost and Nathan Crosby’s Claudio were both wonderfully sympathetic, as was Clara-Liis Hillier’s Mariana. The whole production was well-paced, and Jason Maniccia’s comic timing as Lucio was hysterical. The bits with the executioner and his apprentice had me in absolute stitches – well done, Matt Pavik and David Burnett!

As I was watching I had a hard time thinking of any way the production could be improved. But as I thought more about it and eavesdropped to the responses of the audience, I think perhaps a little more emphasis on the mercy vs. justice theme would have helped. That, however, is really the only thing I can think of that would make it even better.

Measure for Measure is a powerful play, but not one that is necessarily accessible or even appropriate for everyone. It’s lesson, however, is one that bears repeating:

“For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Monday, July 2, 2012


I feel I must apologize for my woeful neglect of this blog lately. All I can say is that June is an insane month. I've had several Shakespeare moments that I haven't had time to write up (finally saw Coriolanus, went to Hamlet in the cemetery, spent some time questioning the main point of the Tempest... stuff like that), and I hope to get some reviews done soon. But now for something completely different:

I stumbled on this happiness while doing research for my latest writing project. This is now my favorite way to enjoy the sonnets:

I had heard some of these before in a CD set called "When Love Speaks," but there's a few in this collection that aren't in that one... like...

Of course, some of these people could read the phone book, and I'd love it. How much more when it's beautiful poetry by my favorite author?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Four Histories on the Beeb

I can barely contain my excitement for this. The BBC is doing Richard II, Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and Henry V. They air in England in June... and who knows when for the poor, culture-deprived Americans. Looks like in Richard II alone we will see Patrick Stewart, David Morrissey and David Suchet, with Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Iain Glen, Niamh Cusack, and a bunch of other people I will probably recognize on the screen filling in the other 3 movies. Happy sigh....

Anyway... So you all can get as excited as I am... here's a trailer. :-D Try not to drool too much...


And if that wasn't enough... Look! Here are some clips!!! :-D First from Richard II:

Then from H4P1:

Then from H5:

Yup. I'm looking forward to this!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Friday, May 11, 2012

Graphic Design and Shakespeare

So, occasionally I get the chance to blend a few of my diverse interests. I'm excited to be doing the graphic design for Portland Actors Ensemble this year! And here's the first poster.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!!!

Not terribly long ago, I wished a friend happy birthday on Facebook. My friends all know that I’m a Shakespeare Nerd… so they challenged me to explain what deep things Shakespeare had to say on the topic of birthdays.

As far as I can tell, he really only brings them up three times – once in Antony and Cleopatra, where Cleopatra uses her birthday as yet another way to manipulate Antony; once in Julius Caesar, where Cassius uses the fact that it’s his birthday to manipulate Messala; and finally in Pericles, where the princess of Pentapolis presides over a grand tournament held in honor of her birthday. From this, we can deduce three things: (1) you have to be Roman or an associate of ancient Romans in order to have a birthday; (2) birthdays are an excuse to manipulate people and get your own way; and (3) birthdays are a chance to party.

Not really, of course. I’m sure there’s cake involved somehow.

O, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention! (Henry V, 1.1.1-2)

In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, I’ve been thinking about how Shakespeare has impacted me. It’s funny, because of all the things I’ve thought about Shakespeare, I’ve never really put that one into words. Well, it’s about time I did.

Shakespeare was my first guide into the Forest of Literary Analysis and Criticism. At the time, I thought I was in Arden… but that just shows what a magical place the Forest really is.

You have to understand, I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. Books – even old, literary books – especially old, literary books – have always been my friends. But all growing up, I’ve resented Literature Classes and Text Books that attempt to dissect and anatomize my friends, twisting them into strange, unrecognizable shapes, claiming they mean more than I could ever see.

So I avoided the Forest of Literary Criticism, unsure of what lurked in its dark, leafy undergrowth.

But a funny thing happened as I went to more and more Shakespeare plays: I noticed that some productions worked better than others; some highlighted things I had never seen before; and some, though radically different than the “traditional” versions, captured the feel, essence and message better than a “normal” version. I began to dig into the plays themselves. Where was all this awesomeness coming from? And there, staring back at me, were the texts that I had read, but never really unpacked.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Shakespeare wrote plays, a medium that must be interpreted in order to be fully enjoyed, that allowed me to start looking at stories deeper. Thoughts of “Why did they do it that way?” or “I could do that better myself!” or “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a production of Hamlet set in mobster Chicago? How would that work, exactly?” just pushed me back to the sources.

Soon I was reading everything I could find on Shakespeare and his plays. I noticed that some interpretations just rubbed me wrong. (That just doesn’t feel like what’s actually going on in Macbeth!) As annoying as I found this, at first, it forced me to go back to the original and pick it apart for myself.

Now am I in Arden, the more fool I. (As You Like It, 2.4.15)

The really funny thing was that the more I dug into Shakespeare, the more I loved it and wanted to share my love of it with others. But it seemed like everyone else was still at the “Wait… everybody dies at the end of Hamlet?!” stage. And the more I had to explain why I loved Shakespeare, the deeper I dug into the texts. Before I knew it, I was saying things like, “As You Like It is a fairy tale… so you can’t take it too seriously.” AYLI is a fairy tale? Where did that come from? Or “Macbeth is all about the whole predestination vs. free will debate… and Shakespeare comes down on the side of free will.” Seriously? What happened to my “Don’t dissect and anatomize my friends! Don’t read into the story things that aren’t there!”?

Then I started applying the things I had learned from picking apart Shakespeare to other stories. And before I really knew how I got there, I was taking writing students for picnics just inside the fringes of the Forest of Literary Criticism and watching their faces register “Maybe… but stop reading things into the story!”

So what difference has Shakespeare made to me? He introduced me to the great wealth of all literature waiting for me just inside the Forest of Literary Analysis and Criticism. Yes… it’s sometimes a scary place… but I’m not afraid to wander there anymore. Thanks, Shakespeare…

… and Happy Birthday!!!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Much Ado About Surfboards

Review of Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing (20 April 2012)

One of the fun things about a theatre as small as the Shoebox is that the audience feels like they are actually in the setting, not just looking at it on the stage. Less than five minutes after I walked in to the palm-tree bedecked, 1960’s beach party themed theatre, I was wishing I had worn flip-flops instead of heels and a Hawaiian print instead of an LBD. (Bravo to director David Sikking for the amazing set design!)

Director David Sikking and the cast of Much Ado About Nothing certainly had fun with the setting – 1965 California beach, with surfboards, bikinis and the Beach Boys. And many things in the setting worked really well with the story. The party atmosphere that underlies Much Ado was obviously present. Don John (Orion Bradshaw) as a rebel without a cause actually makes perfect sense for one of Shakespeare’s enigmatic villains with very little motive for his actions. And the music (a mix of original songs by Stephen Alexander and classic surfer songs) made me want to sing along.

The fun, flirty dynamic between Beatrice (Melissa Whitney) and Benedick (Peter Schuyler) delighted me. Both actors made their characters’ arcs highly believable and consistent. And, as usual with Much Ado, the “eavesdropping” scenes made me laugh way too much! Benedick tried to hide behind the surfboards. And when that didn’t work, he tried to climb into the cooler, and then finally got his head stuck under one of the beach chairs. I didn’t think Beatrice’s scene could beat that, but when she hid under the beach umbrella, then collapsed it on herself, I was in stitches.

Hero (Brenan Dwyer) and Claudio (Carson Cook) made a sweet, young couple – just as they should be. Carson Cook, especially, rose to the challenge of a demanding part, and though his angst was somewhat understated, in the Shoebox it was very effective. There is a moment where we see “snapshots” of Hero and Claudio hanging out, surfing, playing games, and generally “dating.” It was priceless.

The whole production was highly physical, which had its great moments (Benedick turning around and nailing Beatrice with his surfboard, for one), but which also earned the production a PG-13 rating in my book. Don John and his minions (girls in this case, played by Clara-Liis Hillier and Jessi Walters) were too all-over-each-other for me.

The fact that Conrad and Borraccio turned into Connie and Veronica made for some awkward moments later on in the play, also… as did the fact that Clara-Liis Hillier played Connie in one scene and Margaret in the next. While Hillier is more than capable of handling multiple parts, it was unfortunate that those two parts were doubled. At least, I found it confusing… and I know the play quite well.

The setting, which worked well for many things (Gilligan meets Shakespeare?), turned out to be a complete disservice to Dogberry (Scot Carson). One would think that the part would be perfect – I mean, isn’t Dogberry a bit of a dumb surfer dude anyway? What’s the problem? The problem was that he didn’t stand out; he wasn’t that different from Benedick, Claudio, Don Pedro, Leonato, Antonio and the others. There wasn’t enough contrast, and without the contrast, the part just wasn’t as funny as it ought to have been.

Overall it was a fun experiment. I’m not positive that it was wholly successful… but it sure looked like a blast to put on!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Horrible Histories and Shakespearean Insults

Found a new Horrible Histories on Shakespeare. This one goes with my Shakespeare Insults Mug. :-D

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Midsummer Night’s Nightmare

Review of University of Portland's A Midsummer Night's Dream, 13 April 2012

At the closing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck addresses the audience:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. (5.1.2275-2290)

Normally, when I hear this, I find myself thinking there’s no offense to mend, nothing to pardon, no amends to restore. It has been a happy dream, and I’m more than willing to extend my hands to Robin Goodfellow in friendship.

Not so at the University of Portland’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By the end, as much as I wished it possible, I was sure that no amount of pardoning could mend such an atrocity. I realize that this is a college production, and nowhere near in the same league as “professional” theatre… but even with that consideration, I give it a D-. I can’t remember seeing another play where I spent the first half wondering if I should stay for the second.

It would be one thing if it were just a play, poorly done, badly interpreted and ineptly staged. But this was the product of a college drama department, where students ought to be learning theatre skills and techniques – how to do things right, how to look and act appropriately to their parts and, most of all, how to be true to the script.

The purpose of all aspects of theatre is to advance the story and help the audience feel like they’re there, not to draw attention to themselves. Theatre is storytelling, and the minute we forget that is the minute we stop being true to the script. All departments would do well to remember this – costuming, make-up, lighting, sound, set design, and certainly the actors themselves. A drama program that neglects to teach its students this has grievously neglected their education.

Stage make-up, for example, is there mainly to make sure we can see the facial expressions of the actors under the lights. Oh sure, there are some characters whose make-up is part and parcel with their costuming – the odd scar here or there, the 1940’s glamour-girl make-up or, in this case, the fairies with their other-worldly face paint. And that’s fine, as long as it helps to define the character and stays true to the text. But that’s not the kind of make-up I’m talking about for the moment. The audience doesn’t want to see that the guys are wearing make-up. Deep down inside, we all know they are, but unless it’s part of their character (say, a clown or a cross-dresser), the make-up shouldn’t draw attention to itself.

It did. Distractingly. You see, not all stage make-up is created equal. And the amount of make-up you use for one venue and lighting scheme is different than the amount you use for another. This is what makes stage-make-up artists earn their living. Their job is to put just the right amount on so that the audience can see the facial expressions and the actors can look “normal” under the lights… but not more. I can see a drama department giving its students experience with a wide variety of types and styles of make-up… but if they don’t also give them the wisdom to know what is appropriate when, they’ve missed the mark.

Costuming, also, should enhance and help explain the characters. It should be consistent. It should look good on the stage. And it should have a reason for being the way it is. It is never OK to try something new with a costume just because you’ve always wanted to. It must help the story telling.

Megan La Fleur, senior at U. of P. and costume designer for Dream, has yet to learn this. Why in the world did she put Theseus (played by Clarke Orr, arguably one of the tallest people on that stage) in a suit coat with shoulders reminiscent of Lady Gaga or Romulans from the early 1990’s? They had no purpose, did not help define his character, and weren’t consistent. And it wasn’t like his entire world (because there are four worlds present in Dream) had the same look. He was the only one. And it looked weird.

She also needs to realize that it’s her job as costume designer to make sure that everyone’s costumes look right on the stage. Poor Cobweb’s costume was a pale yellow leotard with a black, sheer, cobwebby overlay, but under the stage lights she looked naked under the overlay. It was distracting and inappropriate. I’m guessing that in the costume shop it looked fine, but the costume designer’s job is to design for the theatre, not the costume shop.

I could go on, but I haven’t even come to the most problematic part: Puck. Whether the lion’s share of the blame goes to the director, Andrew Golla, or to the actress, Jessica Hillenbrand, is academic. But Puck was all wrong. From the moment she came on stage, I wondered if I had come to a strange mash-up of Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, because Hillenbrand was certainly channeling all three of the weird sisters, if nothing else. Her voice and physicality suggested pure evil, not a mischievous but good-hearted fairy. And if that wasn’t enough, she heaped on layers of completely inappropriate gestures – inappropriate to the play (because they didn’t go with her words at all, but distracted from them) and inappropriate to polite society in general (to my mind, at least, she was far across the line between physical and pornographic). Her best moments were when she dropped the act and stomped off stage in response to something Oberon told her to do.

If costuming and make-up, and indeed all aspects of theatre, should be drawn from the play itself and should enhance the story telling not detract from it, how much more, then, should the actors’ performances be drawn from the text. Hillenbrand’s wildly inaccurate and inappropriate representation of Puck was a huge distraction from the play itself. Puck is such a central character. Get him wrong, and practically the whole play is ruined.

I have to say “practically” because there were a few bright spots on the stage, even with everything that was so awful. The four young lovers – especially Helena (played by Eleanor Johnson) – were fairly well done. But then, Shakespeare is such genius, that no matter what you do with the two couples, it leads to hilarity.

The other bright spot was the Rude Mechanicals – especially Bottom (Charles Lattin). When they were on, I felt like I was finally seeing the play I had paid for.

But it wasn’t enough. The whole production was such a shambles that it was unredeemable, even though it was Shakespeare. And by that, I mean they used Shakespeare’s words… but they didn’t draw everything from the play itself, and that’s where they fell down. Drama is not license to do whatever you feel like, whether you are a costume designer, lighting tech, actor or even director. It’s a responsibility to be true to the play. And by doing a production like this, I feel that the drama department at University of Portland has let its students down. Perhaps they’ve gone through the steps and are working on their technical skills, but if all of that comes at the cost of actually producing the play whose text you are using, they’ve failed.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Contested Will

While I normally avoid the authorship debate like the plague, I recently listened to James Shapiro's Contested Will on CD while working on graphics projects. Since it was recorded and I was doing other things while I listened, I can't give as deep and thorough a review as I would like to. But I did learn some fascinating things along the way.

Instead of looking at each claimant and his case, Shapiro looks at the history of the authorship question, which began in 1785, but didn't really take off until the mid-1800's. What I discovered is that the history of the authorship debate is really more of a history of philosophy and our approach to all literature for the last 250 years.

We tend to forget (or at least I do) that people haven't always looked at things the way we do now. We take our assumptions and filters and philosophies so much for granted that, even when we do acknowledge their existence, we still assume that they have always been there, and that everyone has the same ones.

Contested Will has challenged me to think about the assumptions I make about all literature. Much of the debate grew out of the idea that fiction is, at heart, autobiographical -- that the author can't help but write about what he knows personally, what he has experienced first-hand, and what he has felt himself. The fact that the man from Stratford doesn't seem to have had the life-experience to have done everything in the plays attributed to him is the main argument of anti-Stratfordians.

As a writer, I have always been a little uncomfortable by this mining-the-story-for-the-author's-life-and-feelings approach to literature. When friends ask which character in my novel is "me," I'm not sure what to say. Certainly, one character may be more like me... but they are my characters, my creation. 

But how often am I guilty of doing this very thing to Shakespeare? How many times have I looked at Hamlet and seen the connection to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet? How often do I nod in approval when someone points out that in Shakespeare's later plays, he writes about the relationships between older fathers and their daughters (King Lear, The Tempest, etc.), obviously mirroring his thoughts about his own daughters? And how many times have I put down my copy of the Sonnets, my brain spinning because of what I assume are the implications of what I see there? I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to making assumptions about the author's life from his fiction.

Assumptions are at the heart of the debate. What Shapiro does so well is highlight these assumptions and show us their sources. Anyone genuinely interested in the history of how we study literature ought to read this book. Anyone even remotely interested in the anti-Stratfordian position (and I use that term not in a derisive way, but simply to group together the Oxfordians, Baconians, and all the others who believe that Shakespeare wasn't the author of the plays that bear his name) would do well to look at the history of the movement. All of us ought to be aware of the assumptions we make and recognize how they color our world.

I have some other thoughts bouncing around in my head after listening to this book... but I think those may find their way into another post. More on that later...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

One Reason I Love Shakespeare

I had a discussion with some of my students last week about why one should study Shakespeare. One asked for clarification in an email later, which gave me the chance to write this:

Shakespeare understood human nature -- what makes us tick -- and he wrote about it so well, that being familiar with his characters helps me understand the people around me. That's why his plays have survived 400+ years -- because deep down the people in the plays are the same people that we live with, that we work with, that we meet on the street or at the library.

Macbeth isn't really a story about witches -- it's a story about a man with ambitions and with a wife who pushes him to "succeed" no matter what it takes. He could be an executive, trying to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or a Senator aiming for the Presidency. And we see people like that in the news all the time.

Hamlet isn't just an emo kid who is commissioned by his father's ghost to revenge his (the father's) murder. Hamlet is a scholar, pushed into a world of action. But he's a thinker... and he finds himself paralyzed by thought. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy isn't about suicide -- it's about how thinking too much about which course of action we should take ends up keeping us from taking any action. I know people who are Hamlets in this sense -- they think and consider all the options and on and on and on... and things just don't ever get done around them... because it's always think first and make sure you've thought about it all.... Knowing Hamlet helps me realize that that's the way they think, and I can relate to them better because I've seen how Hamlet reacts when he's pushed into action (it doesn't go well).

Merchant of Venice is a story of the kind of loyalty you want in your friends -- and how important it is that your spouse and your friends get along, too. Merchant is such a beautiful story of friendship... it's almost a shame that it's clouded over with controversy about anti-Semitism (which isn't really in there... but a lot of people would debate that one).

Othello and Much Ado About Nothing are both warnings against believing everything you hear -- the tragedy (Othello) shows the horrible, horrible consequences, and the comedy (Much Ado) shows in what a tangled mess you can put yourselves and others if you don't verify rumors and accusations. And in this day and age where people are so quick to believe anything they read on the Internet, we could all use that reminder more often.

Henry IV is a coming of age story -- only here you have a dissolute prince who is having to deal with the consequences of his "sewing his wild oats" and become the kind of man he needs to be in order to be a good king. Those consequences (including having to abandon old friends and turn your back on the people who were closest to you) are quite painful and not easily dealt with. So this teaches me a couple things: (1) don't go there in the first place (personally), and (2) don't be quick to judge those who are having to clean up their act.

This is obviously just a smattering of examples. For the moment I've left out Lear, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and a whole passel of others. And Shakespeare isn't the only one who knows human nature and who expresses it in memorable ways. The reason he is one of the best, though, is that he created a massive cast of characters... so he has a wide range to explore. Not many people have that opportunity.

So that's one reason I love Shakespeare. One of many. What about you? Why do you love him?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Robin Hood and the Forest

(I realize this isn't specifically and totally about Shakespeare... but he's in here... I promise. More than that, though, this is a muse on Literature in general. And because I can, I'm putting it up here.) :-)

I went for a stroll in the forest the other day, got lost and haven’t made it out yet. It all started with Robin Hood, although the forest was not Sherwood. It was the Forest of Literary Criticism.
I don’t suppose I should be surprised that Robin led me thither: his, after all, is one of the Old Stories. References to Robin Hood date back to the 13th century, and he has featured in tale and story ever since. Even Shakespeare mentions the famous outlaw, comparing a banished duke and his entourage to Robin and his Merry Men in As You Like It.
       But it wasn’t the evolution of an epic or the staying-power of certain tales that led me off the path and into the Wild Woods, although I will admit to wandering up those paths along the way.
It was clichés.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen so many clichés in one place as I did when I watched the BBC’s Robin Hood show. I wondered, and still wonder, if the writers were perhaps in a competition to see who could include the most… and the most inappropriate for the setting. If I am ever brave enough to watch an episode or two over again, I will count exactly how many make an appearance. And it’s not just the catch-phrase type of cliché. It’s the whole spectrum, from major plot arcs to smoldering glances and everything in between.
But as I sat, puzzled by the depths to which some people lower their writing by filling it with clichés, I remembered that not too terribly long ago, I was praising Shakespeare’s use of tropes. And what, exactly, is the difference between a cliché and a trope? A literary trope is a device or a convention of a certain genre, a commonly recurring motif. A cliché is, perhaps, a trope that has been done to death, to the point that it no longer has any meaning. But they really are just shades of the same thing. If we are talking about a cliché, we call the character a “stereotype”; if it’s a trope, it’s a “stock character.” We belittle the one and admire the other. An author who uses clichés is a hack, whereas one who employs a literary trope is clever, playing with intertextuality, doing something Literary!
And, with that, I looked around and realized that I was deep in the Forest of Literary Criticism, with no hope of finding my way out any time soon. But there was the faintest glimmer of a path over by Intertextuality, and for lack of a better direction, I took it.
Intertextuality is the way that one text references another. It could be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Hobbit echoing Beowulf. Or Shakespeare directly comparing Duke Senior to Robin Hood. Or the new version of Hawaii Five-O referencing its previous incarnation. Or Doctor Who’s Christmas Special paralleling A Christmas Carol. It’s Ray Bradbury writing “Usher II,” deliberately playing off a preexisting understanding of all the best Poe stories. It’s Agatha Christie titling her book By the Pricking of My Thumbs, or The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (a line from “The Lady of Shalott”) or even One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.
Intertextuality exists. There’s no use denying it. To what extent does it exist? Well, that’s another question.
Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. If you believe that, then every story has been told before. And with part of my mind I heartily agree. The Quest, the Coming-of-Age Story, perhaps even the Robin Hood Story – they’re all types, forms. As readers, we recognize them subconsciously. And that’s why we’re incensed when the BBC turns Robin Hood into Hamlet. It’s the wrong form, the wrong story.
But, even though half my mind deeply believes the idea that there are really only a few stories out there, the other part of me looks at my big, beautiful bookshelves and heartily denies it. If there are only a few stories, how do we get Austen and Dickens, Kipling, Lewis and Poe, Shakespeare and Sayers, Tolstoy and Wodehouse?
But surely even the book-loving part of my soul has always known this “few story” theory to be correct. How, otherwise, do I have The Mark of Zorro right next to The Scarlet Pimpernel on my shelf? Is that anything but an admission that they are, in fact, the same story?
But now the author part of my brain is kicking and screaming, so we must give her a chance to speak. How, she wants to know, is one expected to write under these circumstances? Originality is such a virtue, and the fear of someone dismissing your hard work as “copycat” or, worse yet, plagiarism is overwhelming.
And we’re back to clichés and tropes. Can one get away with writing the same stories if one acknowledges the fact and embraces it? Can I, like Shakespeare, deliberately pick stock characters to people my book, and by that make people think back to the original source of those characters and deepen their experience with my story?
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare uses fairy tale tropes, and a lot of them. How does he get away with that? How is his audience not groaning, throwing popcorn at the stage, and thinking, “Seriously? Another wicked step-mother queen?” “A girl dressing as a boy! Never seen THAT one before!” “Lost princes. How original. NOT!”
There may be some debate about the extent to which Shakespeare gets away with using these tropes, but I think there’s a reason for them. The easily-recognizable fairy tale motifs remind us that Shakespeare’s story, too, is a fairy tale, not a tragedy. They also give us a feeling of recognition – this is a story we know. Maybe it has twists and turns we didn’t expect, but what keeps us on the edge of our chairs is not the fascinated horror of inevitable doom (that’s for tragedies), but more of a Wodehouseian “how are they going to untangle this mess?” feeling.
So, the “go back it’s a trap!” feeling we get when Juliet gets the poison-that-is-not-a-poison-but-makes-you-look-dead is not the feeling we have when Imogen gets the same mixture. With Imogen, it’s more of a “here we go again, and won’t this make a convoluted and amusing mess!” They’re different stories… and we know this by the way Shakespeare uses what has been written before.
And we’re back at the Intertextuality Path, because this understanding of genre and types of stories only comes as one story references another. And maybe this path isn’t that far away from the tropes vs. clichés path after all. Dare I suggest that a trope enhances our understanding of what’s going on and deepens our appreciation for the work, but a cliché doesn’t add any layers of meaning or any depth? It’s a working theory, at least.
This may be why we find tropes so satisfying and delightful, while clichés make us roll our eyes and throw popcorn: When we see a trope, we realize that the author is deliberately entering into conversation with texts of the past. We greet the stock characters like old friends. We’ve seen the jealous stepmother many times before. We realize that the author isn’t putting his characters on a boat simply because it’s there or a way to get from Point A to Point B… because boats are made for shipwrecks just like forests are made for getting lost. (If you don’t follow me on that one, don’t worry. I didn’t believe it for the longest time.) And this understanding comes from the older texts.
If we know those older texts, we have Light Bulb! moments. Like the moment we realize that the Prince Florizel of Bohemia in Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights is at least as old as Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Or the time we find the line “Abandon hope all you who enter here” in Dante’s Inferno and realize that Disney has just called the Pirates of the Caribbean ride Hell. (Or is the “abandon hope” line a cliché? Either way, it gave me a light bulb moment!)
Does that mean, the author side of me wants to know, that clichés are used unwittingly while tropes come from a conscious decision? Perhaps. I’m not positive that all clichés are used unwittingly. If using a cliché is a conscious decision, is it a wise one? Not usually. Should the author have known better? Undoubtedly. But tropes… Can an author include a trope that she doesn’t intend? (And though the Path of Authorial Intent beckons, I’m just not going there. There be dragons!) For a trope to enhance our understanding of a text, doesn’t it have to be conscious on the part of the author? Can an author include layers of meaning that she herself isn’t necessarily aware of? (I thought I wasn’t going there!)
And does intertextuality play by the same rules as tropes? We know that intertextuality is everywhere. As a child, you read the Chronicles of Narnia and fall in love with Edmund. Sure, he has his problems… but he turns out to be a great chap. Then later you read King Lear and find that maybe there’s more to Edmund than you thought. Perhaps, Lewis is giving us the other side of the story: If Edmund hadn’t learned his lesson, if Aslan hadn’t sacrificed himself in Edmund’s place, would he have turned out like Shakespeare’s duplicitous villain? Edmund’s transformation in Narnia takes on a deeper significance when compared with Lear. But how much of that was a conscious connection on Lewis’s part?
My author side wants to observe that it is possible for an author to reference another work without being completely aware of it. What we read becomes part of who we are and then can’t be separated out again, and it can resurface when we least expect it and in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I have had light bulb moments with my own writing – and that’s just plain weird. (I was re-reading a Doug Adams book when I came across a sentence that I had chuckled over in my own novel, and realized that I was somehow channeling Adams when I was writing that day.) On the other hand, I think this unaware intertextual conversation doesn’t happen as often as my author side would like to think. And why should it? The times when the conversation works best is when the layers of meaning are intentional. And once again, I abandon the Path of Authorial Intent. That way madness lies.
But this perhaps helps us understand also why the Forest of Literary Criticism and the Woods of Lit Theory can be such a daunting and frightening place. Forests are for getting lost in, and being lost can be scary. But it can also be a time of discovery. This particular forest is filled with many paths… some to beautiful glens with sparking streams, and some to dark places as frightening as Mirkwood. But it isn’t completely inaccessible. The Intertextuality Path, especially, is a lovely place. But if one doesn’t know the stories – the Old Stories, the Great Stories, the Few stories (because there really are only a few) and the Many (because there are oh so many!) – one will never find the Intertextuality Path. So go read a story. Introduce a child to a fairy tale – not a Disney one, although they, too, are a part of the Intertextuality Conversation. Bring a book and sit just inside the edge of the Forest and enjoy the cool shade and beautiful view. And if you see Robin, tell him “hi” for me.