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?