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Canon Project Plays
On Stage

Othello: 'Tis Love, 'Tis True, 'Tis Pity, Too

Drunken Shakespeare: Raising the Bar with More and Much More

Henry IV, Part One: The Bling's the Thing

The Merchant of Venice: Seeking Heroes, We Get Laughter

Coriolanus: Of the People

Imogen: Refocusing Shakespeare's Play from Y to X

Richard II: Divine Right

Hamlet: Crafting Madness

Twelfth Night: Live Theater As Theater of Lives

Other 2018 productions
On Stage

Titus Andronicus: Some Key Ingredients Missing From Otherwise Delicious Titus

The Winter's Tale: Finis

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Two Characters in Search of Their Play

The Gospel at Colonus: A Sermon from the Book of Oedipus

The Great Society: A Shakespearean Tragedy Touches Us All

The Way of the World (adaption): Money Talks

Hamlet: Virtual Reality for the Soul

Hamlet: O'erstepping the Modesty of Nature

Commentary: On Shakespeare

The Authorship Question: Debate Over Who Wrote the Plays Leads To One Conclusion—The Beatles Are Frauds!

Decoding the Renaissance: 500 Years of Codes and Ciphers—Why It Matters

My Falstaff Moment: Would I Were Young For Her Sake

Hamlet, Ophelia, Othello, Lear, the Macbeths, and Me: When Shakespeare Journeys into the Mind He Reveals His Grasp of Mental Illness

The Oldest Have Borne Most: King Lear and the Nihilism of Being Old

Locker Room Talk and Sexual Assault: To Whom Should I Complain?

"'Tis the Curse of Service": Iago Is the Soldier's Soldier—That's Motivation Enough

On Taming Shrews: Who Is the Misogynist Monster—Petruchio, Shakespeare, or You?

Bottom in the Cubicle: Many Shakespeare Characters Are Living and Working Among Us

A Mother's Love: Shakespeare's Ode to Mothers Is Sometimes in their Absence

A Father's Love: Issues with Daddies in Shakespeare

Tiger Woods of Verona: Shakespeare Previews Today's Headlines With the Sex Scandals of Gentlemen

It's An Omen! Shakespeare Had Much to Say About Predicting the End of the World

Henry VI and the Art of Political Spin: America is witnessing its own version of the War of the Roses

Gallant Youths: Shakespeare Casts a Wary Eye On Youthful Exuberance

Shakespeare and Baseball: Beware the Tides of October

Opening Day: The All-Shakespeare Baseball Team

Commentary: On Theater

A Woman's Place: Shakespeare Understood Women Better Than Modern Men Do

To Adapt or Not to Adapt: All I'm Askin' For Is a Little R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The More Things Change… "Four Centuries of Staging Shakespeare"

Choices: Any Value in Getting All the Way to Broadway?

Shakespeare's Hot 40: Ranking The Bard's Plays by Stage Popularity

For Mature Audiences: Only Shakespeare Is Not of An Age but for All Ages—Kids Dig Him, Too

The Most Malleable Medium Putting the Living in Live Theater

Much Ado About…What Exactly? Changing Shakespeare's Text Results in Controversy beyond Creative Considerations

Mobility Impaired: An Intervention for Smartphone Abusers

Mobility Impaired II: Combating Mobile Phone Addiction in Theaters

If It Ain't Shakespeare… Shakespeareances.com—What's in the Name?

Commentary on Sarah

Another Happy Anniversary: Passion Play

A Happy Anniversary: Forever Is Too Long for True Love

A Happy Birthday: Enduring Wind and Weather

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A Tournament of Shakespeareances: It's the Play of the Players That Matters Most

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Caricature of Shakespeare with suitcase, iPad and iPod A message for snobs only: click here Caricature of ShakespeareThe Shakespeare Canon Project:

A journey through Shakespeare across America, 38* plays, 38* theaters, 1 year

(*Productions of Apocrypha plays or the poems would increase this number.)

While in college I read every play attributed to William Shakespeare at least twice, and long ago I "completed the canon," seeing live productions of all 38 plays. I've also seen public presentations of Shakespeare's poems and plays in the Shakespeare Apocrypha. Now, I'm devoting 2018 to traveling with and through Shakespeare across North America by attending all 38-plus plays, each at a different theater. Is it even possible? I set out with only one probability: I can see every Shakespeare title produced in 2018, each in a different theater, though it will be logistically daunting.


Editor's note

This journal is written and posted in real time. Grammatical mistakes will be corrected without notice in subsequent postings. Major factual corrections will be identified here.

Shakespeareances Announces Canon Project

THE ITINERARY

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Fiasco Theater
New York, New York, January 5

Hamlet
Shakespeare Miami
Miami, Florida, January 13

Richard II
American Shakespeare Center
Staunton, Virginia, January 27

Cymbeline (aka Imogen)
Pointless Theatre
Washington, D.C., February 10

Coriolanus
Brave Spirits Theatre
Alexandria, Virginia, February 10

Romeo and Juliet
Valley Shakespeare Festival
Shelton, Connecticut, February 15

The Merchant of Venice
Children's Shakespeare Theatre
Palisades, New York, March 3

Henry IV, Part 1
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Mesa, Arizona, March 29

Sir Thomas More (excerpt)
Night Shift's Drunken Shakespeare
Bar Nine, New York City, April 16

Othello
Baltimore Shakespeare Factory
Baltimore, Maryland, April 22

Macbeth
Chicago Shakespeare Company
Chicago, Illinois, May 30

Much Ado About Nothing
The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Co.
The Rose, Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, Michigan, June 2

Timon of Athens
Shakespeare in the Ruins
Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 5

The Comedy of Errors
Kentucky Shakespeare
Louisville, Kentucky, June 9

Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Sweet Tea Shakespeare
Fayetteville, North Carolina, June 15

King Lear
Shakespeare in the Vines
Temecula, California, June 22

The Winter's Tale
Shakespeare by the Sea
San Pedro, California June 23

The Tempest
The Old Globe
San Diego, California, June 27

The Two Noble Kinsmen
Kingsmen Shakespeare Company
Thousand Oaks, California, June 30

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre
Fairbanks, Alaska, July 6

Henry VI, Part 1
Utah Shakespeare Festival
Cedar City, Utah, July 10

Henry VI, Part 3
Taffety Punk Theatre Company
The Folger Theatre
Washington, D.C., July 16

Antony and Cleopatra
Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival
Jupiter, Florida, July 19

King John
Texas Shakespeare Festival
Kilgore, Texas, July 21

Titus Andronicus
Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, July 25

As You Like It
Shakespeare by the Sea
St. John's, Newfoundland, July 28

All's Well That Ends Well
Ohio Shakespeare Festival
Akron, Ohio, August 2

Edward III
Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Boulder, Colorado, August 5

Arden of Faversham
Shakespeare at Winedale
Austin, Texas, August 10

The Taming of the Shrew
(aka Shrew'd)
First Folio Theatre
Oak Brook, Illinois, August 15

Measure for Measure
American Players Theatre
Spring Green, Wisconsin, August 16

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Independent Shakespeare Co.
Los Angeles, California, August 31

Troilus and Cressida
Long Beach Shakespeare Company
Long Beach, California,
September 1

Julius Caesar
Stratford Festival
Stratford, Ontario, September 12

Love's Labour's Lost
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland, Oregon, October 2

Richard III
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Seattle, Washington, October 6

Henry VIII
Prenzie Players
Davenport, Iowa, October 12

Henry V
Faction of Fools
Washington, D.C., November 3

Still to book

Henry IV, Part 2

Henry VI, Part 2

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

May 19—The Domino Effect

Paata Tsikurishvili, founding artistic director of Synetic Theater in Arlington, Virginia, infused excitement into his email to his company's patrons.

"This note is to inform you that the 2018–2019 Synetic season will now open with an all-new Synetic adaptation of the classic Sleepy Hollow," he wrote, emphasis in the original.

My stomach turned. What had been scheduled to open Synetic's season was William Shakespeare's King Lear. Not only was Synetic's King Lear on the Shakespeare Canon Project itinerary, it was a lynchpin selection that specifically shaped the itinerary.

Tsikurishvili's note explained that the company originally planned to revive its King Lear, one of the hits of Synetic's signature "wordless Shakespeare" series, because he had received an invitation to tour the production to Moscow. The tour was postponed, however, and "it now makes more sense to devise a new production for you and all of our friends," Tsikurishvili wrote. "We are pleased to take this opportunity to bring you something that our team has long wanted to tackle—the mysterious, supernatural Sleepy Hollow. I am extremely excited to stage this American classic ghost story in Synetic's unique style that no other theater can do. Perfect for Halloween!"

Well, it certainly put a fright into me.

Last fall when I conceived the idea of seeing Shakespeare's 38 plays at 38 different theaters in one year and turning it into a profile of the Shakespearean landscape of North America, six theater companies immediately jumped into the must-include silo because of their presentation or production styles. Another couple dozen theaters made up a desired list. Most of the latter group failed to fit into my itinerary because of play selections and timing, but all of the "must-includes" got in because the itinerary was built around them.

Synetic Theater was one of those. This movement-based company's wordless Shakespeare productions—it has now done 13, and I've seen nine of them, but not King Lear—are unique not only for their style but also in the way their sets and choreography visualize the rich imagery in Shakespeare's plays, from an ensemble representation of Hamlet's "To be" soliloquy to the twins dancing opposite each other through a mirror in Twelfth Night. The Tempest was performed in ankle-deep water on the stage (these are dancers, remember), and while Titus Andronicus had no blood, it featured disturbingly effective stage craft.

Another key reason I wanted to profile Synetic was a 2015 report by U.S. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma titled “Federal Fumbles: 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball." Number two in that report was Synetic's "Silent Shakespeare" as Lankford took aim at National Endowment of the Arts funding for what he considered ridiculous, Shakespeare without words. My job as a journalist is to combat such narrow perspectives (I've never known ballet presentations of Shakespeare to use words, either), and profiling Synetic in the Canon Project was going to be part of that. I even planned to take a Russian friend to the show with me because when she accompanied me to Synetic's As You Like It, in addition to better appreciating the play than she would have if it were all spoken in English, she enlightened me on the Russian underpinnings of the production directed by Tsikurishvili and choreographed by his wife, Irina Tsikurishvili.

When I launched the Canon Project, Synetic's Titus Andronicus immediately went on the itinerary, though I worried that a play so grounded in rhetoric might lose one of its chief themes in a wordless production (I needn't have worried; rhetoric as an allegory is incorporated into the choreographed visuals). Then, the company announced its 2018–2019 season leading off with King Lear. King Lear being my favorite play, I thought it a perfect way to represent Synetic. I then committed (publicly and financially) to Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan's production of Titus using puppets. By the time I received Tsikurishvili's note, it was too late to readjust back to Synetic's Titus.

I also thought it was too late to find another King Lear. With Synetic's King Lear in the fold, I had already taken a pass on a couple of important spring productions, and my summer now already is booked solid—well, not quite. A glimmer of light pierced through the calendar in June from Temecula, California, home to Shakespeare in the Vines, which stages plays in a vineyard. By tacking two additional days to the front of our Southern California trip, we will be able to see their King Lear (actually, Queen Lear—cool).

That means that region is now over-saturated, but we'll have to live with that, though I still reserve the right to alter the established itinerary for justifiable reasons. Indeed, after the Titus-to-Lear domino effect knocked Synetic out of the mix, I'm flipping the dominos to effect a change in the itinerary in line with my original desires. With the itinerary now losing its single representation in the District of Columbia's northern Virginia suburbs, I am re-inserting Coriolanus at Brave Spirits, which we attended back in February (it also was my 500th staged Shakespeare production). That production is now credited as a Canon Project visit (See below). I had originally planned to profile Brave Spirits' Coriolanus, but dropped it when I discovered the adaptation of Cymbeline playing at Pointless Theatre in downtown D.C. I then assigned Coriolanus to Stratford Festival in Ontario. Moving Coriolanus back to Brave Spirits allows me to match Stratford with the play I originally wanted to profile there, Julius Caesar featuring Seana McKenna in the title role, Michelle Giroux as Antony, and Irene Poole as Cassius (women are having a good year Shakespeare-wise—cool).

I'm sorry to lose Synetic, but the Shakespeare Canon Project rolls on—seemingly of its own accord. And just like that, we're now 10 plays into the adventure: a quarter of the way there.

May 12—The New Normal: Hope Less

Sarah is upstairs. She's in bed. It's just turned past 3 p.m. on this Saturday afternoon. I expect her to stay in bed for another hour, and another of her days will have passed by without her. Everything we planned to do today—and we spent more than $5,000 yesterday in anticipation—has now slipped into the murky domain of "someday, maybe."

Our new normal is hope less. Not a typo, that, nor should it be misconstrued as giving up. Quite the opposite: It speaks to a determination to do and be all that we still want to do and be.

Starting last Friday, Sarah did not have any seizures or dizzy episodes for six days. The previous such stretch was three days. We didn't celebrate my 60th birthday last Sunday because Sarah was due for an episode, so why get my hopes up? By Tuesday, however, she not only was still churning along, she also was displaying marked improvement in her cognitive abilities. This past Tuesday I marveled at the witty, intelligently decisive woman I fell in love with but hadn't seen for the past couple of years. That lapse in Sarah I thought was an aftereffect of her heart disease and thyroid cancer three years ago; feared it might be the early onset of dementia; and now have learned to be a byproduct of the condition causing her seizures. Her current medication seemed to be working on all fronts.

Wednesday evening, with hope riding high, we made our plans for this weekend: replace my laptop, which had become too ancient to handle the heavy lifting the Shakespeare Canon Project will require on the road, and get Sarah a new iMac. Sarah's "new" computers have always been my hand-me-downs when I upgrade. She gets all the latest technology she needs at her job, and at home she uses a computer only to surf through news and clothing sites. Now that she has to work from home for the foreseeable future and I'm still happy with my office iMac, we decided to get her a brand new desktop that she can set up any way she likes rather than inheriting my quirks and anal tendencies.

Thursday morning she was up—and then she was down and out, suffering from another seizure and its consequences. That was the moment I decided to quit hoping, and I put this determination to the test yesterday. She made it through the day OK, but because her spells seem to come around midmornings, we waited until late afternoon to leave the house (also allowing her to make up the work hours she lost on Thursday). In addition to getting our new computers, we shopped for ingredients for Shakespearecurean cooking (we're improving the Macbeth menu and recipes). We still had a fun weekend planned, and we kicked it off by staying up to midnight watching the Washington Nationals on TV win yet another baseball game (they're on a roll), and then we went upstairs and circled the bases ourselves.

This morning was like Christmas: I woke up around 6, raring to go. Sarah slept another two hours, came down to the office, cleared off her desk for her new computer, and then watched as I finished fixing breakfast, the centerpiece of which was an omelet themed on Lady Macbeth (green onions, roasted red peppers, smoked ham, savory, sour cream). I was just about to dollop on the sour cream when I looked over and saw her staring down at the counter.

"Are you alright?" I ask this question a dozen times a day now. She looked up and I saw that "out of sorts" look, her description of how she feels at the onset of a seizure. "I think I'm going to sit down," she said, weariness in her voice, absence in her eyes.

"No, get upstairs to bed," I said. Reluctantly, she did. I finished the omelets, laid out the plates, and then went up to check on her. She was cold to the touch, which seems to be a symptom of these spells, so I told her to get under the covers. Then I saw the tear pooling in the corner of her right eye and spilling toward her temple.

Being a caretaker is stressful, frustrating, aggravating, irritating, angering, even. I admit all that. My back is so knotted my massage therapist scheduled me for four sessions this month, evidence of what I don't express outwardly. It's honorable to say, "I do it because I love her," and while that's true, it's also honest to say I'd be much, much happier if she'd just get well, you know? Nevertheless, the greater emotional toll for the caretaker is watching the person you love toiling with her new reality. I learned that in the six years I took care of my father after his stroke. I never grumbled about the long drives, the social and work disruptions, and dad's new behavioral quirks because I saw the real struggle in his eyes: a man missing what he once was but still striving with great courage, humor, and determination to be loving, loved, and useful.

I'm back in the caretaker role again with Sarah. Three years ago, until they discovered what was happening with her heart, my key responsibilities were doing all the driving and being hyper-aware of her proclivity for passing out every 36 days. This time, again I have to do all the driving and make sure she stays safe, but we never know day to day if we're getting the fully engaged Sarah or that "out of sorts" look leading to four or five hours in bed and a troubled demeanor afterward. As I did with my father, who lived a seven-hour drive away, because of Sarah's situation I have adjusted my schedule, expectations, and priorities; but, as happened with dad, I can't adjust the empathy I have for a person having to deal with her new reality, even if she is addressing it with great courage, humor, and determination.

It hurts to see her hurting, especially when I knew this morning that she was hurting because she not only let herself down, she felt she let me down. She did (through no fault of her own), but dwelling on that Photo of breakfast under wrapwould only foment more frustration for both of us, so I mitigate such notions however I can. I wrapped her plated breakfast figuring that someday, maybe, a zap in the microwave will let her enjoy what turned out to be a delicious omelet along with bacon, hashed browns, and toast. And I'll be there to watch her enjoy it (I hope: I thought it was delicious, but she might not agree).

It's not that her prognosis is bad. In fact, we still don't have a prognosis. Though the neurologist is reasonably certain what her condition is, Sarah needs to go through a phase of trying medications and doses to control the seizures without making her otherwise incapacitated. In the meantime, I'm working to change my hard-wired penchant for hope by accepting Sarah's new normal as a reality and calculating that into our ongoing plans, dreams, and passions.

That adjustment is essential to accomplishing the Shakespeare Canon Project. Prior to Thursday, I had been wondering how am I going to pull it off with Sarah's situation (and she won't let me postpone the project). Now I ask the same question, but with a different inflection—no longer a whine or rhetorical but a causal interrogation requiring an answer. How am I going to pull off the Canon Project travels given that I can't leave her alone for more than a few days, but if she travels with me her seizures could be disruptive? Answers: I'll book hotels according to their proximity to the theaters rather than price so that I can check in on her frequently; on long drives I'll have her sit in the backseat of the car during the mornings so she can get comfortable should a spell overtake her; I'll make sure I break up the longer trips, especially if she's not with me, though that might require additional flights. I'm still pondering how she herself will handle long flights, but I'll come up with an answer.

One how I haven't addressed is how my extremely tight budget for this project will afford these new considerations. I admit, I'm leaving that one to faith for the time being, because, one, there is nothing I treasure more than Sarah, and, two, I'm keeping my eyes solely on Sarah's eyes as I make "someday, maybe," every day, somehow.

Next Journal entry

May 5—What’s in a Number

One of the driving inspirations for doing the Shakespeare Canon Project: 38 Plays, 38 Theaters, 1 year this year was, well, this year. 2018 was bound to be volcanic politically and socially, and I wanted to see what William Shakespeare had to say about it as I criss-crossed the continent. The needle on the Richter scale has been vibrating even more frantically than I could ever have imagined, but Shakespeare, incredibly, is keeping as current as ever—even in original pronunciation, original production practices, and textcentric productions.

2018 also was certain to have personal significance: It’s the year I turn 60 years old. That, in fact, happens tomorrow. Is it a day of dread or celebration? Actually, it’s a day I’m hoping to get caught up in work, in the office, and around the house. I’ve been kind of busy and distracted lately, and clearing the physical and mental clutter is as nice a gift as I can expect this year.

That actually is a commentary on the whole turning 60 thing. It’s supposed to be a benchmark number but, like decades, centuries, and millennium, does the zero on the backend really have significant implications to the state of things? True, when I launched out on the Canon Project, I figured that my turning 60 would have real significance in the project. You know what? Shakespeare says nothing about 60. Eighty, yes; sixty, no. We know who exactly is 80 years old in the canon—Adam, King Lear, and the Old Man—but the rest of the characters are somewhere between 16 and 80. The closest I get to specific mention in Shakespeare is Jacques's reference to the “pantaloon” in the Seven Ages of Man (that would be age number six: add a zero on the backend and there I am).

What is 60? What’s in a number? A Sarah by any other number would be just as hot (and, other than her hair, it’s all natural). For her 60th birthday last November we took a romantic getaway to a resort for five days of oblivion. The 20-something guy ogling her at the poolside I’m guessing thought she was pretty hot for a 30-year-old. Now, six months later it isn’t the significance of turning 60 I was looking to replicate—I don’t look 30; I look and am shaped as a man in his sixth decade of existence—it was the oblivion.

But, well, age has its way and life intervenes, this time in the form of Sarah's issues with seizures (medical report update: her prognosis is still a “work in progress” according to the neurologist, and we’re adjusting to a lifestyle in which the issue is becoming an integral part). And that is as Shakespearean as it comes, whether tragical, comical, historical, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

With that, let's turn to the number that really counts for me this year, the one atop this page: 38.

I am now unveiling the bulk of the itinerary for the Shakespeare Canon Project. I have scheduled 28 plays at 28 theaters into November. Combined with the nine productions I've already seen, that's 37 plays at 37 theaters (three of them apocryphal titles), including Henry VIII. Two titles have not yet been assigned as I await more information and consider scheduling options, and one title has been assigned but the production not yet formally announced. Just one title, Henry VI, Part Two, has not yet appeared individually on a playbill, but I have the option of attending a production conflating it with the other Henry VI plays. I also reserve the option to switch a selection if something ends up bugging me about that selection’s theater or production.

Although a couple of regions ended up with five productions each—and that was more a product of the types and titles of those particular productions rather than locale (even scheduling didn’t factor into it)—I reached my goal of getting representation in every geographical region of the continent. I’m also going corner to corner: Miami, Newfoundland, Fairbanks, and San Diego. I could not fit a trip to Hawaii in, but I’m going to Saskatoon.

So let's not wish me a happy 60th. Let's make it a happy 38—or, rather, a happy 41!

Next Journal entry

April 27—You Go, Marbury!

Troy Jennings was a shy kid. He never raised his hand in class. In the ninth grade at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Jennings' reputation was so entrenched that when a substitute English teacher leading the class through William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet called on Jennings to read Mercutio aloud, the other kids in class laughed. "You want Troy to read? He never talks. How can Troy possibly read this part?" Jennings remembers these taunts with humor, because they were the truth. But the substitute teacher insisted. "He said, 'Troy you can do it, because as an actor it's all about becoming the character,'" recalls Jennings, who describes how the teacher passed his palm down across his face. "I've always remembered that."

Jennings read Mercutio and, by his account, "did a pretty good job. It was like, you go, Mercutio! That was my first time ever really reading something out loud, and it gave me the inspiration to want to do that more."

That substitute teacher didn't inspire Jennings, now 29 years old, to become a Shakespeare fan, but the moment did steer him toward an acting career. Shakespeare didn't really enter his conscience until last year when he took up a colleague's recommendation to audition for Antony and Cleopatra at the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (BSF). He won the part of Octavius Caesar, but was ready to quit after the first rehearsal focused only on textual interpretation and the Original Pronunciation that particular production would be using. Jennings felt overwhelmed, but he decided that at least tackling the challenge could only be good for his career even if he failed. It was like, you go Octavius! At the end of the play's run, BSF's Artistic Director Tom Delise asked him to play the title role of this year's OP production of Othello.

Because he is playing the title character of the Othello I am profiling for the Shakespeare Canon Project, on my visit to BSF last weekend I interview Jennings in the sanctuary of the former Episcopalian church that now serves as the St. Mary's Community Center and home to BSF. The company performs in the sanctuary now reconfigured as an Elizabethan theater. Jess Behar, the production's Emilia, takes part in the interview, and Delise is standing by to let me know the next pair of actors are ready for their interviews. As I wrap up with Behar and Jennings, the latter, upon some reflective silence, says, "I kind of got into acting, I feel like, through Shakespeare," and he tells his story of the substitute teacher.

Behar gets excited. She's a former elementary school teacher who now serves as a resource teacher for the Office of English Language Arts with Baltimore County Schools. "Yes!" she occasionally interjects in Jennings' story. "Teachers!" Jennings nods. "Teachers: the power of the teacher," he says. "A great teacher can really inspire you." Behar imagines how cool it would be if that substitute teacher could come see Jennings now as Othello. She's ready to make that one of her week's goals at work, tracking down the teacher. Delise, a high school English teacher himself, agrees; if Behar can find him, Delise will invite him to one of the shows on the run's last weekend. They ask if Jennings remembers the name of that substitute teacher.

"Edward Marbury," he says. "That would be great to see him and thank him."

Photo of Troy Jennings with Eddie Marbury
Troy Jennings, left, meets with his ninth grade English class substitute teacher, Eddie Marbury, in the lobby of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory after Jennings's performance as Othello. Photo by Eric Minton.

Behar has succeeded. Tonight, Eddie Marbury, wearing a white, gold-embroidered dashiki and pant set, walks into the church's vestibule, which serves as BSF's lobby and box office. Ed is the real name his parents gave him, and because people want to turn that into Edward he goes by Eddie. He was a career teacher who had become something of an institution at Loch Raven, so when he began substituting after his retirement the kids knew him. He also has theater cred. He was a good enough actor while he was earning his master's degree at New York University to get noticed in the plays he was in. Though he had offers to launch an acting career, he chose to teach instead. He's now the director of the Youth Theater of Northern Baltimore County for children 7 to 18 years old; they are currently producing The Pajama Game.

He demonstrates the gesture of passing his palm over his face, literally wiping off the perpetually smiling expression of this truly genial individual and leaving behind a hard-edged, stoically serious look. "You have become this character," he says; "you are not John or Sally." Or Troy.

Marbury does not specifically remember calling on Jennings to read Mercutio, but it fits the lesson he always stressed when he taught Shakespere, even as a sub: read the text out loud. "The plays are meant to be heard, not read," he says, "You miss all the beauty of the language if you're just reading to yourself." By reading or playing the parts, the students begin hearing the rhythms of the verse structure and comprehending the lines' meanings. What seems like a bunch of obtuse words in the head become "you go, Mercutio!" in the room. "Teachers in some cases have elevated Shakespeare to the point where they think it's supposed to be difficult and untouchable, and if you understand it then you're an exception," Marbury says. "No, no, no, no, because Shakespeare didn't write for the exception, he wrote for the people."

On this night, Marbury himself is hearing Shakespeare as if for the first time through the Original Pronunciation presentation. He loves it: its earthiness, its flow, the clarity in the rhymes and meanings of words, and the way it makes the characters seem more natural.

At the end of tonight's performance, after the actors have taken their curtain call, Jennings addresses the audience, describing his ninth grade Mercutio moment. "You never know the impact you might have on someone; you never know how the words someone might speak to you can move you and inspire you to do better and better in life. And one source for that is a teacher." Jennings invites "Mr. Marbury" up to the stage and hands him flowers and a poster of the production. They hug.

Afterward, back in the vestibule, still shaking his head trying to comprehend the miracle of this moment, Marbury tells me, "Sometimes we don't know how we affected people. It's incredible to know because you always wonder, did you make a difference? Did what I say in any way make a difference to these students? To see this and have him tell me that is humbling." The satisfaction is not only that Jennings stepped forward to acknowledge him, but Jennings might represent others that he has influenced.

Marbury also experiences this night the fruit of his teaching methodology. "The tragic thing is that teachers are no longer allowed to teach; now they must prepare students for tests," he says. "Unfortunately, those tests are not what it's about." He points toward the stage in the sanctuary. "This is what it's about. This is the culmination of it. Out of a moment, a quiet individual found his voice, and that gave him a sense of direction, his 'I got it' that he has continued to do what others were saying he could not and he has done it well." Marbury has just witnessed how well. "I am impressed," he says of Jennings' Othello. "Very much so. Oh my gosh."

Marbury could have earned his own ovations playing Othello, but this night he reaps applause for choosing to be a teacher. This night, he says, is "the paycheck you get that doesn't come from your employer. And it's that which doesn't come all the time, but when it does, it's a big payday. It's incredible. It has to make you feel that you have touched at least one somebody. That's what teaching is all about."

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April 23—Vision

Today we celebrate William Shakespeare's birthday. Today, though, we're getting new windows installed in our home (and my office). Is there something metaphorical in that?

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Othello
Baltimore Shakespeare Factory
St. Mary's Community Center
Baltimore, Maryland, April 22

I hear the question this weekend more than I ask it: Why stage a Shakespeare play using Original Pronunciation?

OP is the brogue of English spoken during Elizabethan and Jacobean times. It is the dialect William Shakespeare spoke and, more importantly, heard when he wrote his plays. It is the reason Shakespeare rhymed love with move, though today that scheme sounds odd. It is not Early English (Beowulf) or Middle English (Chaucer) but early Modern English, and though it sounds unlike anything we hear today on the streets of America, Australia, or England, it yet seems familiar. Some liken it to the dialect of New England watermen or the Deep South. When I first heard a small sample in my college days, I thought it sounded like pirates, but the more I'm exposed to it, the more I hear echoes of the North Carolina Appalachia of my hillbilly heritage.

Even without OP, many proclaim to have issues with Shakespeare's early Modern English spoken in contemporary Modern English, though I believe from experience—my own and others'—that the issue is not Shakespeare's language but actors not well versed in speaking it. Nevertheless, if Shakespeare already suffers an accessibility issue, why layer on OP? For Tom Delise, founding artistic director of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (BSF), it's a company core value, and his production of Othello that I'm attending this weekend is his company's fourth annual OP outing.

With its slogan "Bard to the Bone," the BSF strives to re-create Shakespeare's staging conditions: universal lighting (stage and audience share the same light), no sets, few props, and audiences sitting in close proximity to the stage and drawn into the action. The productions are text-centric in that they rely totally on Shakespeare's script for thematic resonance and character arcs rather than a director layering on his or her own conceptual theme. They also are text-centric in performance quality: Delise puts his actors through stringent textual work in rehearsal (thereby making it more understandable to patrons: see accessibility issues above). All of this, Delise believes, make Shakespeare not only more resonant for modern times but also more entertaining as it reveals the breadth and depth of the Bard's humor (really broad and gutter-deep) while many passages invite audience participation and create an improvisational vibe. Adhering to such principles also sets BSF and its five-figure budget apart from the mostly conceptual-style productions at better funded companies that abound in the Capital Region Shakespeare scene.

"The reason OP appealed to me immediately was if we are going to re-create the lighting, re-create the movement, re-create the characterization, re-create the staging practice and the fast pace—all the things that scholarship seems to agree on regarding the way Shakespeare put on plays—then what is more natural then to actually bring back that language?" Delise tells me. We are sitting in black leather-looking chairs in his office behind the former church's sanctuary that now serves as a playhouse, describing how he got here aesthetically (starting with his high school students staging Shakespeare plays) and physically (in the one-time home of the now-defunct Baltimore Shakespeare Festival). Delise was introduced to OP in a seminar by Ben Crystal, an English actor who has become a leading practitioner and whose father, English language scholar David Crystal, worked with the Shakespeare's Globe in London to stage full-length OP productions of Romeo and Juliet in 2004 and Troilus and Cressida in 2005.

Delise committed to staging one OP production per five-play season with The Merchant of Venice in 2015. Subsequent productions of The Winter's Tale in 2016 and Antony and Cleopatra in 2017 had mixed results, in part because the OP element ran up against other production issues. For this year's Othello, Delise hired Ann Turiano, who had acted with the company and has expertise with the International Phonetic Alphabet, to become a certified OP coach to train the cast. The result is the most consistent playing of OP I've yet seen.

For the audience, the results are mixed, exemplified in the assessments of my wife and me. Sarah says she understood the play better; I feel OP interferes with an otherwise outstanding production featuring a cast as strong as any I've ever seen in an Othello. That said, OP adds to Othello's masculine musicality as played by Troy Jennings in only his second-ever Shakespeare performance. He and other cast members describe how speaking with OP forces them into a lower register, speaking from the abdomen where the characters' emotions swirl. Jennings and the rest of the cast do play this play from the heart without interposing any psychosocial attributes (such attributes arise naturally from the performances through the perspectives of our own relationships with the archetypes these characters represent).

Photo of Desdemona and Othello
Desdemona (Kathryn Zoerb) and Othello (Troy Jennings) in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of Othello. Photo by Will Kirk, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

With a résumé of modern plays and a particular affinity for August Wilson, the 29-year-old Jennings made his Shakespearean debut as Octavius Caesar in BSF's Antony and Cleopatra last year. Such was the quality of his performance that Delise immediately asked him to play Othello. Jennings is a rare specimen: an actor whose multiplay Shakespearean experience is only in OP. Nevertheless, he believes playing in OP has improved his vocal skills for his modern roles.

His Desdemona in this production, 28-year-old Kathryn Zoerb, has been performing for BSF for five years. I've been appreciating her performances during that time not only here but also down in Washington, D.C. (she lives in Arlington, Virginia, a two-hour commute to this theater), including with Faction of Fools, a commedia dell'arte company. A few hours before last night's performance we are sitting in one of the church pews, and I ask her straight up if OP is worth doing. "Yeah," she replies, instantly and forcefully. "It's important to know where things come from, where we come from, how things evolve, why things change." Through both OP and commedia dell'arte she appreciates digging into theater's roots, which, she feels, enhances her other work in both classic and modern drama. "I think that enriches your soul, not just as an actor but as theater goers. There's a magic in going back to the original version It's taking a very old thing and dusting it off to feel brand new."

Then Zoerb says something that will spin some heads: OP is the antidote to the shroud of pretentiousness in which many dress Shakespeare as it brings his work back to the groundlings for whom he wrote it. "This dialect reminds us how growly, earthy, and low" these plays used to be, she says. When you hear hour sounding like whore and foot rhyming with boot, Shakespeare begins keeping company more with the likes of Amy Schumer and Quentin Tarantino than with Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.

"Why do OP?" asks a member of the audience in an after-show talkback with the cast. Many among the patrons who stay for the talkback (an audience of about 50 attend this evening) say they appreciated the experience; we don't know the opinions of those who didn't stay, of course. After several actors answer the question, making similar observations to those I've been hearing in my conversations with Delise and cast members, the play's music director, Jim Stimson, provides the coda. Stimson performs in early music and folk ensembles in the region, playing, among other instruments, guitar, cittern, bandora, shawm, and recorder. For Othello he plays a crumhorn in one scene and a lute to accompany Zoerb's performance of Desdemona's song "Willow, Willow" during intermission. "It's like playing a lute instead of a guitar on a Renaissance song," Stimson says. "It's a journey of discovery."

To see the review, click here

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April 20—Magic Waters

There is nothing quite as fun as two Shakespeare geeks getting together over their shared passion.

We arrive at Tom Delise's townhome in a leafy neighborhood in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. What looks like a shaggy white pillow on legs (actually Japanese spitz) greets us with excited barking: this is Shakespeare. “Hey,” Delise greets us, intervening in Shakespeare’s path to allow Sarah and me through the door. “You’re in the proper colors,” he says noting our black and orange garb. Watching us intently from her bed in the dining room is Hermione, a 13-year-old shepherd-chow mix with paralysis of her hind quarters. Delise picks her up and carries her up the winding stairs as Sarah, Shakespeare, and I follow to Delise’s library boasting more than 1,000 books on (and by) William Shakespeare. Ophelia, an all-black cat joins us.

Delise is counting the days—"38! I hate the weekends because the number doesn't go down"—to his retirement as a high school English teacher. In that career he started staging touring Shakespeare plays by his students, which led to his other career, as founding artistic director of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory (BSF). "Bare Bones Shakespeare" is the company's motto, producing plays relying on text-centric presentations and original staging practices, and performing one play each season using Original Pronunciation. We are in Baltimore this weekend to see this year's OP offering, Othello, as part of the Shakespeare Canon Project: 38 Plays, 38 Theaters, 1 Year.

But not tonight. Delise is taking us to a baseball game. We're in the "proper colors" of the Baltimore Orioles—Sarah in her quilted Orioles team jacket, me in an Oriole-emblem polo shirt over a historic, orange-sleeved t-shirt, both of us wearing official team hats. Delise is wearing an orange Orioles jersey. He's added a ticket to his two-seat season ticket plan tonight at Camden Yards, one of our favorite ballparks (we've seen many games here since its debut season in 1992). Before the Nationals arrived in Washington, D.C., Sarah, a Cal Ripken fan, pledged her devotion to the Orioles while I maintained my allegiance to the Atlanta Braves, but we also have the official game hats of every team we visit, Major and Minor leagues (current count: 268 hats).

Photo of Delise and Minton outside Camden Yars
Tom Delise, left, and Eric Minton stand outside Camden Yards. Photo by Sarah Smith.

Delise and I talk baseball whenever we get together at BSF plays, and the topic occupies the latter half of every email we send each other. Despite often discussing seeing a game together, either here or down in D.C., this is our first opportunity. He's a traditionalist, as am I. Despite following an American League team, he prefers baseball without the designated hitter, and he doesn't like the instant replay on umpire calls instituted a few years ago. Human error is part of the game for umpires as well as players, he contends. Delise has been so busy directing Othello and making up for the loss of his managing director, who left for another job a few weeks ago, that he isn't aware of the new rule limiting mound visits per game (I like it—it does speed up the game, but it does so by inserting a new element of contextual strategy). Another new rule being tested in the minor leagues is to start each extra inning with a runner at second. "Are you serious?" Delise cries incredulously. I think that rule undermines the essence of baseball the same way making the goings on in Elsinore a figment of Hamlet's or Horatio's imagination runs contrary to the essence of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Orioles starting pitcher, Dylan Bundy, throws the game's first pitch as we reach our upper deck seats just to the third base side of home plate, a perfect view of every pitch's location as it passes (or doesn't pass) the batter. We immediately witness why these Orioles are off to a horrendous start this season as their catcher, rookie Chance Sisco, lollygags on a foul popup that drops to the ground a couple feet in front of him. Pretty soon the bases are loaded with only one out, and Bundy hits Edwin Encarnacion with a pitch, scoring the game's first run. That's all Cleveland gets.

Delise, a native New Yorker, tells us he grew up a Mets fan. When he was 7 years old two bullies pinned him against a fence and ordered him to cast his lot for the Yankees or the Mets, the latter guaranteeing a beating. He had no affinity for either team, but he told them, "The Mets," in a stance of defiance that is obvious in his personality today, this being a man steering a text-centric, OP-playing Shakespeare company into the headwinds of an attention deficit disorder–afflicted society. He took the beating, but he gained his baseball identity. He soon was burning his Mickey Mantle baseball cards. "He was not even worthy of putting on my bicycle wheel," Delise says. "I was a Mets fan. I burned Roger Maris, Yogi Berra." Yogi Berra?! I reply, astonished. "He was a Yankee," Delise says matter-of-factly.

This was back when the Mets were perennial losers, before the "Miracle Mets" won the 1969 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles behind pitcher Tom Seaver, Delise's childhood hero. The greatest heartbreak he has ever known, he says, is when the Mets traded Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. He's a solid Orioles fan now, but he still can't help dropping the date 1969 into conversations at every Opening Day he attends with a friend who is a lifelong Orioles fan—a life long enough to count that '69 Series as his own greatest heartbreak.

Bundy is now handcuffing the Indians batters, and in the fourth inning, Manny Machado's line drive over the center field fence ties the game. In the next inning, Trey Mancini's double over the center fielder's head puts Baltimore on top 3-1. A couple innings later, Machado makes a diving snag of a ground ball up the middle to kill a Cleveland rally.

I've encountered several Shakespeareans who, like Delise and I, are as passionate about baseball as they are about the Bard. We like other sports, but baseball reaches our emotional-intellectual core the same way Shakespeare does. Within baseball's strict rules and mathematical structure, just as in Shakespeare's rhythmic verses, resides a vast canvas of human drama. Despite its centuries-old traditions, Shakespeare's plays are always new and in the moment; so is every baseball game. Shakespeare's plots, themes, and imagery play out on multiple layers, each character as complex as human nature, each word carrying varying contextual meanings. In baseball, every single pitch resides in the context of that one of three outs in that one of nine (or more) innings; each inning approached in the context of that one of 162 (or more) games in the season. When the pitcher releases that ball, life unfolds in infinite ways.

Baltimore's 3-1 lead holds up for a win. In just under three hours (Shakespeare time, anyone?) we are walking out of Camden Yards, buzzing about the game, the one we've just seen and the one that fuels the memories in our heads and the possibilities in our hearts. "They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes," says Terence Mann in the movie Field of Dreams. "And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they'd dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they'll have to brush them away from their faces. The one constant through all the years… has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time."

We can substitute "Shakespeare" for baseball in that passage. The speech even sounds Shakespearean, given the actor who speaks it in the movie is James Earl Jones. People here in Baltimore still talk of Jones and Christopher Plummer in a touring production that stopped at the Mechanics Theater downtown in the early 1980s. It was Othello.

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Sir Thomas More (excerpt)
The Night Shift's Drunken Shakespeare
Bar Nine, New York, New York, April 16

Two elderly men walk into a bar. "We've come for Shakespeare," one says. This is not a joke. Nor is this event they have come to see, Drunken Shakespeare, which its organizers, The Night Shift theater company, proudly describe as Shakespeare karaoke.

Picture of Bar Nine's drink specials for Drunken ShakespeareWe are at Bar Nine on 9th Avenue in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen where people will take the stage to speak a Shakespeare speech or sonnet, off or on book (or mobile phone). The evening encompasses four "acts" of six presentations each, with one player in each act winning a free drink at the bar by luck of the draw (there's also raffle prizes by sponsors). For one such draw, slips of paper bearing the participants' names are tucked in the host's belt, and the "raffle wench" pulls the winner out by her teeth—quite the erotic "name-from-a-hat" technique. "Hey nonny, nonny!" the host shouts to open the proceedings, triggering the nightlong call-and-response cheer. Performers use the phrase to signal the end their speeches, and the audience responds in kind with a hearty "Hey nonny, nonny!" Such hijinks and low-jinks run through the festivities, but as for the Shakespeare itself, the deal is real. Speeches include Puck, Richard II, Rosalind, Benedict, Henry V's Chorus (not his first speech but "a little touch of Harry in the night"), Lady Anne (chugging a pint glass of brew midway through), Gonzago, Paulina, and a sonnet sung.

Drunken Shakespeare is always on a Monday night though irregularly scheduled. Waiting for the event to start, I often hear mention of Shakespeare in the oscillating hum of bar conversation. Many in the room seem to be frequent attendees, the majority in their 20s and 30s. Those two elderly newcomers are sitting around the corner of the bar from me, so I eavesdrop awhile on their Shakespeare-infused conversation as I watch the start of the Nationals–New York Mets ballgame on a TV screen above the stage (I will have to purposely employ my amblyopia tonight, with one eye on the Shakespeare performances and the other on the Nationals, who are slumping and in danger of falling insurmountably behind these Mets in the division).

I'm about to introduce myself to the two men when another Drunken Shakespeare first-timer approaches me to say hi: Ross Neal, a two-year member of American Shakespeare Center's touring troupe based at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. Neal, now working in New York and living in the neighborhood, read about Drunken Shakespeare and decided to try out one of his audition pieces tonight, Brutus's contemplation over joining the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. I later note the ASC quality in his performance, direct address to individuals as he strolls through the crowd of about 30 raptly attentive people (no one's watching the Mets beating up the Nationals, the Yankees routing the Marlins on a TV screen at the far end of the bar, or a pro wrestling "Raw" telecast in the middle of the room). I begin thinking that casting directors should attend Drunken Shakespeare (incognito, of course). Neal not only gets a hearty "Hey nonny, nonny!" and applause from the crowd, the raffle wench picks his name out of the host's breast pocket for the free drink (she uses her fingers for this first drawing).

Many performances are serious. Chris Diaz does Lady Macbeth's letter-reading scene infused with such heartfelt romantic devotion for her husband that I am left slack-jawed. Others play to the room's party atmosphere. Tom Harney does As You Like It's Touchstone's shakedown of his love rival, William, ending with "I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways," whereupon Harney shows us some of those ways. He channels The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Alien, and The Walking Dead, then asks for suggestions, receiving audience prompts to hang himself (even miming kicking the chair out from underneath), be struck by a train, drown, and succumbing to an attack of killer bees. I am left slack-jawed.

A woman named Madison and her friends, regulars at Bar Nine, happened upon Drunken Shakespeare tonight, becoming fascinated in the program (I see her at the back of the bar mouthing along to Diaz's Lady Macbeth speech), and signs up to do one of the Jailor's Daughter's speeches from The Two Noble Kinsmen. I have no idea if she is a trained actress, but she gives an arresting performance of a young woman caught up in her own romantic fantasies. She, too, wins a free drink, the last of the evening as the raffle wench uses her teeth to pull Madison's name from the host's teeth as they do a dance dip.

Around this time, the Nationals, down 6-1, score six runs in the eighth inning and tack on a home run in the ninth for an essential 8-6 win. It's a good night, though I marvel most at the rich Shakespeare I'm seeing, ranging from an electrifying Portia (Lucy Lavely, the raffle wench) trying to waylay Bassanio from choosing among the chests in The Merchant of Venice, to Sam Finn Cutler doing Caliban from The Tempest like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings: "All the infections that the sun sucks up from bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him by inch-meal a disease!" "When I first read Caliban I pictured Gollum in my head," Cutler tells me afterward. He says he attended his first Drunken Shakespeare about a year ago, "and I'm addicted. I love karaoke, and I love Shakespeare."

"When you walk into karaoke, you don't expect to get Whitney Houston, but sometimes you get Whitney Houston," the host, Night Shift Artistic Director Jonathan Minton, says when he and I sit down together after the show for a recap as the other Shakespeareans head out into winter's return to New York on this April evening. Having hosted Drunken Shakespeare for about four years now, he says, "I continue to be surprised by a performance every time we do this. Honestly, some of my favorite Shakespeare, and in some cases best Shakespeare, I've ever seen has been here."

This is a guy who has been watching live Shakespeare productions since he was 7 years old when I, his father, began taking him and his 2-years-younger brother to plays. Jonathan has seen the breadth of prime North American theater companies from his childhood to now, and he has acted with Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, as well as several New York City companies. He directed Measure for Measure last year for Night Shift.

Photo of Jonathan Minton performing Thomas More's speech at Bar Nine, with his father looking on from the side
Jonathan Minton, right, performs William Shakespeare's penned speech in Sir Thomas More during Drunken Shakespeare at Bar Nine as a discerning critic (his father) watches. Photo by David Bradford, Night Shift.

This night, it is he who reaches the highest of echelons, achieving pin-drop silence—even Bar Nine's ambient sounds cease—as he speaks the Shakespeare-penned speech by the title character of Sir Thomas More. The play had trouble getting through England's censor when it was first written in the early 1590s, and some 10 years later several playwrights worked on a revision. Shakespeare wrote just the one scene of More as undersheriff of London quelling an uprising by London's apprentices and laborers against "the strangers," i.e., immigrants. I've never seen the play—never even read it before this night—but I wanted to represent at least Shakespeare's speech in the Shakespeare Canon Project, so I suggested to Jonathan that he perform it for Drunken Shakespeare—which I'd never seen before this night, either.

Yes, I'm opportunistic, but I also knew what Jonathan would do with the passage. He gives a gripping performance as he moves through the room. "You'll put down strangers, kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses, and lead the majesty of law in lyam to slip him like a hound," he says with piercing authority, turning the audience's polite listening into conscience-disturbing attention. The Bar Nine patrons know what More is referring to and why Jonathan is speaking these lines in 2018—even in New York City, the most multiculturally blended city I know. More's logic comes full circle as he points out that, should the Londoners treat foreigners so atrociously, "What country, by the nature of your error, should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders, to any German province, Spain or Portugal—nay, anywhere that not adheres to England—why, you must needs be strangers." The complete silence gives way to utterances of consent.

"There's no doubt but mercy may be found, if you so seek it," Jonathan's More says looking into the eyes of various Drunken Shakespeare participants. Then, still using More's serious, firm tone, he says, "Hey nonny, nonny."

"HEY NONNY, NONNY!"

To see the review, click here.

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April 16—Puzzlementation

The puzzle is completed—except for one missing piece.

Last night I finished working out my Shakespeare Canon Project itinerary, scheduling more than 38 plays at more than 38 theaters. The rest of the journey begins—egads! this morning.

I've been able to fit in all but 1 3/4 of the traditional canon plays. Henry VIII still has not made it on to any playbills for 2018 (I've heard of a couple of productions planned for 2019). Any artistic directors out there who want to do a staged reading, let me know. Also lacking is Henry VI, Part Two. One theater is doing a conflation of the entire first Henriad tetralogy, and I've included that on my schedule, but so far I've seen no individual production of Part Two announced for this year. Counting the conflation for Part Two is a fallback choice, but it at least allows me to address the debate over whether the Henry VI plays (and the two Henry IV plays) should be produced separately or combined. My personal opinion can be summed up in the fact I've subtitled this project "38* Plays, 38* Theaters, One Year" with asterisks denoting "productions of Apocrypha plays or the poems that would increase this number," not "or less, if we count all three Henry VI plays as one play, and both Henry IV plays as one."

Two titles I have not yet assigned as I await a couple more scheduling announcements and weigh geographical considerations with timing.

Meanwhile, three plays from the Shakespeare Apocrypha are on my schedule, two of them full-scale productions and one—well, I'll explain a little lower down. Plus, another Apocrypha play has been announced but not scheduled. I will reveal each stop on the itinerary as I confirm with individual theaters.

Was it easy? No: I've spent two days lining up the schedule (neglecting our income tax returns). To give you an idea of how logistically challenging this will be, between Memorial Day and Labor Day I will be home only a dozen days, and the extensive travel continues into October. The next hurdle: actually booking the trips. For example, many one-chance-only productions are scheduled the last two weeks in July, so I'll be heading down to Florida, then over to Texas, then up to Saskatchewan, and over to Newfoundland with hardly any time to spare. I've been able to give Shakespeare good geographical coverage across the continent, and all four corners are represented (a fifth corner, Hawaii, didn't survive the late July traffic jam). I've also made a concerted effort to represent the full spectrum of theater types and presentation styles, from puppets to musicals. The only style of staging I currently lack is a staged reading (Henry VIII, anyone?).

Credit me not with planning skills; credit Shakespeare. That I will be able to see in one year every play (save one) that he's said to have had a hand in writing, each at a different theater on one continent, is a testament to his continuing popularity.

One production I hoped to work into the schedule is a Southwest Shakespeare Company conservatory project centered on Sir Thomas More, including a production of the play touring to other theaters in Arizona and Southern Utah. Unfortunately, that tour lands during that July jam. Anticipating I wouldn't be able to see a full production of the play, I worked out an arrangement with the artistic director of New York City's Night Shift theater company, which has been hosting "Drunken Shakespeare" at Bar Nine in New York City for several years (not to be confused with the "Drunk Shakespeare" production in New York). This is a kind of Shakespeare karaoke. Anyone—actors or not—is invited to speak speeches and play scenes from Shakespeare's plays for fun, prizes, and drinkers' entertainment.

At tonight's Drunken Shakespeare, the company's artistic director will give Shakespeare's famous speech on immigrants from Sir Thomas More. I've added it to the itinerary: Hey, it's an apocryphal play, so I'm allowed an apocryphal representation of it. At least Shakespeare's single and singular contribution to the play makes it into this discussion, addressing an important social issue this year, part of the theme of relevancy running through the Shakespeare Canon Project.

It also allows me to burn a Canon Project spotlight on a particularly personal relevance of Shakespeare, his role in my own fatherhood. The artistic director of Night Shift is my son, Jonathan Minton.

Speaking of personal relationships…

I venture back up the Jersey Turnpike today with some trepidation, for I'm leaving Sarah at home. We have had progress in her medical condition. The neurologist diagnosed seizures, but he believes the condition can be controlled with medication. He's started her on a two-phase regimen to test the diagnosis and establish a prognosis. Meanwhile, her lab work indicated the presence of an infection, which could have exacerbated her condition. So, she's on antibiotics, too. She had more episodes last Wednesday and Friday, but since starting the new meds she's had a great weekend—she even took over the income taxes for me (so maybe she is delirious). Still, since these episodes started happening two weeks ago, she's not gone more than two days without one, so today is a big test of the medicine's efficacy. I won't leave the house until I'm reasonably certain she's going to be OK and safe (and the neighbors are on standby).

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April 10—Yes, Ma'am

When my wife goes all colonel on you, just salute and say yes, ma'am—even 10 years after her retirement from the Air Force.

Sarah was still wobbly as noon approached last Thursday when I posted my previous entry on this journal, but she insisted that we go to the home opener ball game. Yes, ma'am.

It was windy cold, the Nationals lost, and Sarah was miserable the entire time. Except for the National Anthem before the game and "God Bless America" for the seventh inning stretch, she sat as still as possible, eyes closed in a constant battle to maintain equilibrium (in the seventh inning stretch she didn't even remain standing for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"—by that time I'm sure that was not a sentiment she could embrace). Our friends around us wished her well as we waited for the crowd to thin before we headed up the stadium steps to the concourse and back across the street to the hotel. Dinner afterward was an abbreviated affair, and she was in bed by 8 p.m.

She was chipper and eager Friday morning—for about an hour. The dizzy spells hit her again, and this time I went all colonel spouse on her. We checked out of the hotel, went home, and I got on the phone to various doctors and MRI labs to get treatment going (I went all colonel spouse on everybody). We at least got in to see the nurse practitioner of our primary care physician who, upon examining Sarah, joined our efforts to expedite matters with Sarah's neurologist (who had moments earlier told me to "follow up in eight to nine weeks").

The underlying hangup is that Sarah needs an MRI, but her pacemaker requires special protocols. Despite the fact that she's had such a protocol-specific MRI a couple of years ago at the same lab, we're hitting a bureaucratic buzz saw. What, they don't have access to her records the last time she had the procedure done? They don't have access to her cardiologist with the information they need? They don't accept that information from me who easily got it from her cardiologist? They can't return phone calls? Of course they do, do, could, and can, but won't, won't, won't, won't.

More and more I'm feeling like we're an inconvenience to our health care providers. I salute our primary care physician and his team at Fox Mill Family Practice, who made time for us, did a thorough exam, listened (and read the emergency room reports), and turned advocate. Exemplifying the more prevalent attitude we're encountering is what I saw when I took Sarah to her neurologist last Wednesday for an EEG: the reception windows are completely covered in paper with a sign saying "use computer to check in." You want bedside manner in health care? Go to a good hotel. The folks at the Hampton Inn Navy Yard in Washington were deeply caring and bent over backwards to assist us as we checked out three days early on a filled-to-capacity weekend. There's a reason I'm a Hilton Honors diamond member. Too bad Sarah can't get diamond membership credit for the various doctor visits she's had to make the past three years.

By the way, going "all colonel" is not a casual joke. As it factors into the future of this Shakespeare Canon Project, it is essential that I explain this about my retired Air Force colonel wife, and I'll do so by describing two events.

When Sarah was a lieutenant colonel and maintenance squadron commander, she was deployed and, by virtue of her rank, ended up being troop commander for the contracted flight of military members heading overseas from Atlanta. The plane had mechanical problems after arriving in Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and was grounded along with everybody on board. A couple of days passed, and other deployment flights passed through, but Sarah's flight kept getting pushed back, whereupon she took the matter up with the Ramstein aerial port commander. In her email to me, Sarah said she went "wall-to-wall" with that person. That night I attended a unit banquet and met up with some of her squadron's senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers) who told me she and the rest of the flight were now en route to the Middle East. I told the guys she had gone "wall-to-wall" with the aerial port commander, and they all said, knowingly, "Oh, yeah, we know what that's like." "I guess you do, too," one said. No, I didn't, and they went on to describe the ferocity they'd sometimes seen in her or heard through the closed door to her office. "She's great: I'll take a bullet for her," one said. "But don't be stupid and piss her off."

When I was the magazine editor for the Reserve Officers Association, one of my peers, the director of industrial affairs, was a retired Air Force chief master sergeant (the most senior of NCOs). "Chiefs" are the backbone of the U.S. military services, highly respected by Sarah and other officers, so I knew to strike up a close relationship with her. We became good friends—and had been for four years when one morning she told me, "I met Colonel Smith for the first time yesterday." I looked at her, puzzled. "You've met Sarah before," I said; in fact, we've often socialized together. The chief looked at me steadily: "Oh, I know Sarah. But yesterday I met Colonel Smith for the first time." Ah, right. Sarah was waiting in the car outside to pick me up for a dinner date, but my boss had waylaid me on my way out. The chief, leaving work herself, saw Sarah and with a cheerful greeting told her I would be down soon. From her own 30-year service career, the chief recognized from the look and vocal tone of Sarah's response that it was best to just stay clear of the colonel.

That colonel was actually in a great mood this past Saturday. The medicines prescribed on Friday appeared to have stopped the dizzy spells, and she was well-rested enough to determine we should go to Saturday's ballgame. We spent Sunday working on the Canon Project itinerary, but because of the time and temperature of Sunday night's game, we opted to stay home (cost lost on those tickets) and watch it on ESPN.

Yesterday she was ready to return to work. I offered to camp out at a coffee shop nearby, just in case, but she didn't see the need. Moot point: by the time I drove into her workplace, she was in distress. I drove her back home, got her back to bed, and made another appointment with her primary care physician for this morning. She's spent the entire time since in bed.

Let's survey my own situation here. I can't leave Sarah alone until we get a diagnosis and treatment, nor is she allowed to drive until then. She can't travel—for two days now, 30 minutes in the car wrecks her. Meantime, the medical community is dragging its feet (though today, her doctor did a few more lab tests to rule out other factors and, armed with that information, got the neurologist to see Sarah tomorrow). Clearly, at the least I have to suspend the Shakespeare Canon Project, right? Except that Sarah, going all colonel on me even in her current condition, won't hear of it. Furthermore, as much as I'm focusing on her medical condition, I'm cognizant of Sarah's constitution as we work through her current health crisis, and she doesn't want to be the cause of cancellation.

So, we'll carry on, planning ahead but taking it day by day. The experience of the past week has taught me I have no choice but to take each of Sarah's days according to its own dictates. I also have no choice but to complete the Shakespeare Canon Project. Yes, ma'am.

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April 5—Home Opener

The phone rings—literally: cascading wedding bells announce that Sarah is calling my iPhone. In public, it makes people smile, and, of course, I answer with a smile. I'm in an Office Depot looking at traveling office cases on sale. The one I've been using is getting worn and wobbly and likely won't make it through the summer of the Shakespeare Canon Project: 38 Plays, 38 Theaters, 1 Year. So, I am checking these guys out and wanting to discuss it with Sarah when, perfect timing, she calls. I answer the phone with a singing "Hello."

Photo of streetlamp banner of Cubs and A's spring trainingThis was Monday, the day after I returned home from my Canon Project trip to Los Angeles, California, and Mesa, Arizona. I had arrived in Mesa one week ago today to visit with the Southwest Shakespeare Company. It was the eve of Major League Baseball's 2018 Opening Day and a few days after spring training had wrapped up in the area (the Chicago Cubs and Oakland A's have their camps in Mesa). My team, the Washington Nationals, like me, was on the road when the season opened, and, like me, are today in downtown D.C. for their home opener. As is our annual tradition, we've booked a room at the Hampton Inn across from Nationals Park through the weekend to attend all three games of the opening series with the New York Mets. We are Nationals season ticket holders, but this year I inevitably will miss several games because of my Canon Project travels.

The pause on the phone is long enough for me to repeat, "Helloooo," but without melody in my voice, just drawing out the second syllable with the questioning tone that comes with wondering if this is an accidental dial. "Eric?" Sarah finally replies. Her voice sounds strained. …

Photo of Nationals Park, with logo of All Star Game and sign flashing Opening DayTwo five-day periods on my Canon Project calendar are blacked out: this Home Opener weekend and the festivities leading up to the Nationals-hosted All-Star Game in the middle of July, which we have been planning to attend for three years. Knowing how intense my work would be balancing the Canon Project with Shakespeareances.com and my freelance work, I determined to include three "oblivion breaks" this year. These would be five-day, no-obligation, get-away-from-all-work-and-household-duty, mind-and-spirit-recharging breaks. Opening Day, the All-Star Game, and Sarah's birthday in November would be the centerpieces for these breaks.

"Are you OK?" I ask Sarah. There is another pause before she answers. "Can you come get me?" "Are you at work?" I ask. "I'm still in the car," she says.

Already, the All-Star Break had lost its oblivion tag when Taffety Punk set July 16 for its Bootleg Shakespeare Henry VI, Part Three, at the Folger Theatre the day before the All-Star Game (I'll miss the Home Run Derby). While I was in Mesa, I realized that this Opening Weekend break would not be obligation-free, either. With a trip pending next week, I have to sort through my matrix of plays, theaters, and run dates to establish a final selection for my Canon Project itinerary. With two reviews to write and one freelance assignment due, too, I knew I couldn't get it all done before shutting down my office yesterday. Nevertheless, I intended to make this a special break with Sarah.

"What do you mean 'still'?" I ask Sarah. "How long ago did you get to the car?" I have to admit I am as much annoyed as worried. She had fully recovered from her vertigo episode on the eve of my leaving for my 10-day trip out West—she went to work every day last week—but she was feeling "light headed" when I got home Sunday and spent the rest of the day in bed. Nevertheless, Monday morning she was up with the alarm (having had just three hours of sleep over the weekend, I drowsed through it) and kissed me goodbye at about 7:15. Sarah, though, has a habit of pretending she's not as sick as she really is and ends up, well, inconveniencing people. "I didn't get into work," she says. "I've just been sitting here in the car." My worry sprints into alarm.

Photo of three statues of children playing baseballBetween the matinee show of SW Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, at the Mesa Arts Center and my midnight flight home on Saturday, I strolled up and down Mesa's Main Street looking at the statues of iconic institutions and people representing the community's history. I came upon one of a boy sitting on a bench and holding a baseball, a dog sitting expectedly in front of him. Another statue—actually, three individual bronzes—portray children playing baseball: a catcher and a batter near the street corner, a pitcher several feet away. After my hugely enjoyable and productive Canon Project visit with SW Shakespeare, these statues seemed such a great segue to the coming start of our baseball season.

"Are you at the [office] garage?" I ask. "I don't know," she says, effort becoming more obvious in her voice. "I see the highway and the ramp. Yes, I think I'm at [office]." She could drift away any moment. "I'm on my way," I say, realizing I can't call for help because I'm not certain where she is.

For Sarah and me, baseball is as great a passion as Shakespeare. Why not this year combine them in the upcoming breakaway weekend? I thought. My "oblivion break" would instead be a great opportunity to set aside all other responsibilities and give dedicated time and attention to the Canon Project itinerary, except, of course, when we are at a game. With no game tomorrow and Sunday's game starting at 8 p.m., that's two fully open days (plus, snow is in Saturday's forecast, jeopardizing that day's game). With this simple reconsideration of the weekend, the Canon Project's biggest organizational task began looking like real fun. After photographing the statues of the kids playing baseball, I was all smiles as I headed to the car and on to the airport and home.

I call Sarah as I drive into her workplace parking garage. She guides me to where she is parked, next to a pillar in deep shadows where nobody would have spotted her passed out in the car. She is woozy but OK and determines that she wants to go home rather than to the hospital. I get her and her purse and lunch bag into my car, call one of her colleagues to get word to her boss about what has happened and that her car would be in the garage overnight, and we head for home. Her haziness bothers me, though; she can't tell me anything about her morning except that at one point she noticed the dashboard clock saying 9:00—she doesn't even remember driving to work. I detour toward the emergency room. The same doctor who treated her vertigo attack is on duty, but he immediately knows something drastically different is going on this time. But what?

We still don't know. Sarah was discharged that evening but destined for another series of medical tests, which began yesterday. Meantime, she is not allowed to drive. She's been terribly tired since then, spending much of her time in bed. At times she seems alert, but too many other times she looks dazed. She's suffering no pain, but her gaze testifies to psychological distress, a deeply distant look I saw in my dad's eyes in the weeks after his stroke. I know what mental instability is like during bouts of depression, but how does one deal with a brain that just decides to shut down for whatever reason?

Photo of Sarah with Nationals Park in background
Sarah, on the roof of the Hampton Inn across from Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., two hours ago when I started writing this entry. Above: Spring training banner in Mesa; Nationals Park at the dawn of Opening Day; statues of children playing baseball on Mesa's Main Streat. All photos by Eric Minton.

Her prognosis is a mystery. Can I leave her for the many trips the Canon Project will require? She can't drive. How am I going to balance chauffeur duties (including two-hour total commutes per day, minimum) with traveling? If she's not working (she's a contractor), our biggest chunk of income ends; thanks to the Canon Project and emergency home remodeling we're already getting by on a thin margin. How much do we rely on her working remotely? Can we afford hotel rooms near her workplace while I'm traveling? That's what we did three years ago when she went through her heart trouble and I was commuting to Charlotte, North Carolina, every three weeks to tend to my father. Don't think I'm being self-centered in asking these questions: Sarah is insisting I carry on with the Canon Project. Then, too, she went to work on Monday.

Every day this year we are reading a Shakespeare sonnet—kind of a daily Shakespearean devotional. Today's is omen-worthy perfect, Number 75:

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As 'twixt a miser and his wealth is found;
Now proud as an enjoyer and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure,
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better'd that the world may see my pleasure;
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight,
Save what is had or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

What is the omen, I wonder. When I started writing this, Sarah was eager and alert; now she's on the bed, appearing woozy and complaining that she feels bad but not able to describe symptoms.

It's Opening Day, an Oblivion Break dedicated to baseball and finalizing the Canon Project itinerary. Or…

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March 30—Surviving

He swishes his bourbon on the rocks in a clear plastic tumbler. "Shakespeare has been in my blood all my life," 56-year-old Raj Sivananthan says. He remembers when he was 3 years old growing up in his native Sri Lanka and his parents read to him from one of four books every night: Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, Bedtime Bible Stories, Persian Fairy Tales, and Russian Fairy Tales. His parents had no obvious reasons to choose those particular books, Sivananthan says, "But I'm glad they did."

Photo of Mesa Arts Center's Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse's exterior and plaza
The entrance to the Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse at the Mesa Arts Center in downtown Mesa, Arizona. Below, Raj Sivananthan relaxes in the Mesa Arts Center Plaza. Photos by Eric Minton.

We are sitting at a table in the plaza of the Mesa Arts Center. This multidisciplined, multigeometric, 210,000-square-feet complex of various theaters, studios, and galleries—the "largest comprehensive arts campus" in Arizona, according to Wikipedia—sits on Main Street right in the middle of downtown Mesa. Arts is, physically if not literally, at the heart of this Phoenix suburb.

When the complex opened in 2005, the Southwest Shakespeare Company was one of the residents. Through the glass lobby door behind me is the 200-seat Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse where tonight Sivananthan and I will be watching SW Shakespeare's production of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. The law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP is the sponsor of this production, and Sivananthan, a product liability defense lawyer, is a managing partner at the firm's Phoenix office. He also is on the SW Shakespeare Board of Directors. That both SW Shakespeare and Sivananthan are here on this evening is a remarkable tale of survival.

In Sivananthan's family, his destiny was to be a doctor or engineer. Those bedtime stories, however, set his bearings on theater and language. He acted in school plays growing up in Sri Lanka and as an exchange student in Gallatin, Tennessee. He attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. "It was like Hogwarts, literally," he says of both the environs and the scholastic atmosphere. Back home, though, civil unrest forced his family to flee to Australia. To make sure Sivananthan had barrier-free access to them, Sewanee officials helped get him a scholarship to England's Oxford University. He eventually attended Vanderbilt University's law school where, he says, he almost quit, but, ironically, his Shakespeare professor convinced him to stick it out. After earning his law degree, he had opportunities to work in New York or Chicago, "But I couldn't stand the weather," he says. When he came out to Phoenix he never left.

Photo of Raj SivananthanAbout 20 years ago, a few years after he settled in Phoenix, he happened upon a listing for a SW Shakespeare production, attended, and was impressed. "It was high quality. I can tell good from bad," he says after his experience with theater in England. He regularly attended—and spoke up—at after-performance talk-back sessions. Then-Producing Artistic Director Jared Sakren took notice. "I stick out in Mesa," says the trimmed-bearded Sri Lankin lawyer with a coffee complexion and Indian accent.

As Sivananthan was increasing his involvement, the company ran into a plague of troubles. First came the flood: a costly outdoor production fell victim to prolonged rainy weather, which is an audience killer for people living in the Valley of the Sun. The company fell into debt. In a parallel universe, the Phoenix chapter of the English Speaking Union, which holds a national Performing Shakespeare Competition for students between the ages of 11 and 14, shuttered to the consternation of one Mary Way. She had been serving seven years on the SW Shakespeare Advisory Board, and when she discovered that the chapter could be reactivated under an umbrella organization, she took the proposition to SW Shakespeare. The company agreed to form a chapter if she would join the executive board in a reshuffling of its members.

At the first meeting of the newly constituted board, the president resigned and the members discovered a theater teetering on the edge of extinction. Despite the company's daunting debt, the new board voted to carry on with Way as president. That was two years ago.

As the board tackled the debt—Sivananthan describes it as a "Houdini escape"—Way was given the title of executive director and set about reconstructing the company. Much of the current operating staff has been hired in the past two years, including Managing Director Michele Peters, Director of Education and Strategic Initiatives Roxane Smyer, and the Co-Producing Artistic Directors, Betsy Mugavero and Quinn Mattfeld (a married couple, they have had successful acting careers on Broadway and in regional theaters, and Mugavero is still contracted to play Desdemona at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer).

Then came the fire. Last June, a blaze believed to have been started by a discarded cigarette outside the company's warehouse swept through the building, hot enough to melt metal on the door. Twenty-five years of props, costumes, sets, and equipment were destroyed. "All that's left was a concrete slab," Peters says. With its next season in jeopardy, SW Shakespeare received an outpouring of assistance from the local theater community and the international Shakespeare community, including England's Royal Shakespeare Company. "We knew we had no choice: we had to continue," Peters says.

Now the company is on a growth trajectory, including establishing a presence in Peoria on the opposite side of the valley from Mesa—that's, like, a world away for the people who live in this valley. Nevertheless, Peters, Way, and Sivananthan point to the company's mere survival the past three years as testimony of Shakespeare's importance to the community.

Shakespeare is clearly important to Sivananthan, but he also is just having so much fun serving on the board. "There are no conflicts, no sharp elbows," Sivananthan says. In my three days here, I experience a company brimming with fellowship, optimism, and creativity. "That's what keeps me coming," Sivananthan says. "I want to be with the players, the writers, the creators, and the crazies. I think Shakespeare was right: we should kill all the lawyers. But never kill the players. And never kill the writers."

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Henry IV, Part One
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse, Mesa Arts Center

Mesa, Arizona, March 29

Sitting on a stool atop a tavern table, Prince Hal (Tony Latham), a dagger in hand and a pillow perched on his head, is playing his father, King Henry IV. Falstaff (Keath Hall) stands before him playing Prince Hal. This scene in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, has just gotten past Hal's famous crux line, "I do, I will," in answer to Falstaff's plea to not be banished. Suddenly comes a cry from the wings of the stage, "Stop! Stop!" and the scene stops. This might not be unusual in a rehearsal with the director intervening, but this is a paying public performance, and it is the dramaturg who strides onto the stage. Then she starts lecturing—to us.

You might be thinking that is one dedicated dramaturg if not one downright crazy dramaturg, but this moment is integral to tonight's "Stop-Action" presentation of the Southwest Shakespeare Company's Henry IV, Part One.

Mary Way, SW Shakespeare's executive director, says she came up with the idea when a patron complained that he couldn't always understand what was going on and wishes he could hit the pause button. The company tried to do exactly that in its first Stop-Action show last year with Hamlet. "Talk about throwing crabs in the pot," says the dramaturg, Susan Willis. The pause-button process proved too problematic for the actors, so the program was tweaked for Romeo and Juliet earlier this year and further refined for this night's production.

The program now combines Willis's lecture on Henry IV, Part One, with the actors playing key scenes. Stage Manager Kate Weir in the booth calls over the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, we're doing one-one," and three actors in costume walk on stage, Henry (Eric Schoen), Westmorland (Libby Mueller), and Princess Joan of Lancaster (Bonnie Beus Romney in one of several re-gendered roles). They are soon joined by Walter Blunt (James Cougar Canfield), and Henry reads Blunt's letter about Hotspur's exploits. The action continues into the king's subsequent bitter comparison between Northumberland's son Harry Hotspur and his own son Harry Monmouth, whereupon Willis stops them and opines that Hal is part of Henry's public relations effort. She then describes how the play questions not just who would be a better son, Hal or Hotspur, but, "More important, who would make a better king? And this becomes the gist of the next two scenes."

This is a three-front history, literature, and theater lesson. Willis covers the actual events surrounding Henry IV, describes the play in the context of Shakespeare's career and his second Henriad Tetralogy in particular, and discusses the play's production history. For example, every leading actor from the 17th century to the 1950s played either Falstaff or Hotspur, depending on their age at the time. Then, in 1951 when the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon staged the four-play cycle, a historical first, Prince Hal became the centerpiece role with a then-unknown actor, Richard Burton, playing the part.

The actors are called upon to play moments that Willis has selected from the SW Shakespeare company's full production:

Photo of Hal in the throne with Henry lecturing him
Prince Hal (Tony Latham) gets thrown into the throne by his father, King Henry IV (Eric Schoen) in the Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. Photo by Laura Durant, Southwest Shakespeare Company.

At the end of some scenes, Willis engages the cast. She probes Schoen for the king's emotional state in the meeting with Hal. "I'm not a real touchy-feely guy," he says still in character. During that scene, Henry grabs his son and throws him into the Game of Thrones–inspired throne of spears. Willis asks Latham what that felt like. "I feel really small in that seat," he replies, though that might be as much physical as emotional: Set Designer Tiana Torrilhon intentionally built a large-scale throne, and Latham's Hal looks like a toddler in a high chair.

The production's director, Asia Osborne, is also on hand to describe her staging choices, including using the audience for Falstaff's "food for powder" army. "We love this character," Osborne says about Falstaff, "until you get in the way of something he wants." Willis points out that because the audience is engaged directly in Falstaff's and Hotspur's speeches, "We have a choice. One offers you death, one offers you a piece of the future. Who do you root for in the upcoming fight between Hal and Hotspur?"

Tickets for this show are deeply discounted compared to the rest of the run, and audiences are aware that they are not getting the whole play. The go-and-stop nature of this format, however, is not easy on the actors, who must jump into character and sometimes stopped short of their moment. Some eye-rolling and frustrated faces are evident on stage. Though Willis has the director's script and has been in touch with Osborne, the dramaturg has only seen the production for the first time at a student matinee in the morning, during which she's furiously scribbling notes. She works out her scene choices with Weir, but doesn't get more than a meeting with the actors.

Collaboration evolves as the program progresses. Latham starts hanging out on the stage during Willis's lecture, and she uses him for his insights into Hal. Hal's famous "I do, I will" line is "A complicated four words," Latham says; "and there's a comma in there which makes it even more complicated." By the curtain call the cast applauds Willis, and reports afterward describe cast members expressing appreciation for the program, even those who had been skeptical or frustrated. Many, too, would take part in the Willis-led Flachmann Seminar, a deeper dive into the play occupying a full Saturday morning two days later.

But, then, actors know a star turn when they witness one, and that is what Willis accomplishes. A professor of English at Auburn University Montgomery, Willis has been the dramaturg for Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) since 1985, including teaching in that company's Master of Fine Arts program. She's also directed at ASF, so she knows theater from the inside. Her relationship with SW Shakespeare began about five years ago when Michael Flachmann died shortly before one of his seminars, and Willis was called "in desperation." She's been de facto SW Shakespeare dramaturg ever since.

Willis sets an easy-intellectual tone right off the bat. She can out-pun Hamlet, slapping her own cheek on particularly bad ones. She drops in pop culture references. During her Flachmann seminar, she notes that head jewelry comes with being king: "It's all about the bling," she says. She has a podium on the stage but only spends a few seconds behind it, displaying as much energy as Hotspur. Above all, for 2 1/2 hours, her knowledge of and insights into the play—historical, textual, structural—keep coming.

Since my college days, Henry IV, Part One, has remained one of my two favorite Shakespeare plays (King Lear being the other). Willis has taken my appreciation of it to new heights. Though we only see about an hour of the actual SW Shakespeare production, this is one of the most complete presentations of this play I've ever seen, viscerally as well as intellectually.

To see the review, click here

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March 28—Auto Speller

Photo of a rock-clif mountain surrounded by desert, with trucks passing on the highway at its foot

 

 

Driving through the desert (left) from Los Angeles brought me to the "Valley of the Sun" and my hotel in Tempe, Arizona (below), next to a rock formation that is a typical feature of Phoenix's sprawl; except, the others don't feature a "T." Photos by Eric Minton.

Photo of a rock-cliff stump of a hill, a white "T" on its face, beyond a parking lot and apartments

I just texted Sarah to tell her I've arrived in Phoenix (actually Tempe) after my six-hour drive from Los Angeles through terrain I've always enjoyed since I was a kid. I'm now readying for my visit with the Southwest Shakespeare Company for the Shakespeare Canon Project: 38 Plays, 38 Theaters, 1 Year.

My text to Sarah is a courtesy to her, yes, but also a prompt to hear from her for a daily report on how she's doing. As of yesterday, she's generally recovered from her vertigo attack of last week, and her primary physician isn't concerned of anything long term.

Auto speller is giving me fits. When texting on my iPhone, as well as when writing my reviews on my iPad, the speed with which I compose and type often leads to innocent typos becoming guilty grammatical errors thanks to auto speller. The program has never read Shakespeare or dealt with an Equity-influenced cast of actors, and it thinks it is a better writer than I am (the other day, bona fide became "bone find"). Do you get annoyed when people are always trying to finish your sentences, especially when they're almost always wrong?

In 1998, Sarah, then the commander of an Air Force maintenance squadron, was deployed as part of a forces build-up during some sword rattling with Iraq's Saddam Hussein. At that time, email was not readily available for deployed troops, but because she was the forward commander for the logistics group in the AOR (Area Of Responsibility, euphemism for war zone), she had email access for the purposes of official communications. Including with me: as the squadron commander's husband, I was the point person for the family network at the home base. "Official communications" did not include personal business (except what she needed to know to do her job), let alone any romantic cooing or sexual innuendo. So, since she was the forward LG in the AOR, I used an acronym for my sign-offs: ILU. She did the same in return, and we've maintained this sign-off on our emails and texts ever since.

Before this trip, I could just punch a capital "I" when texting and it brought up "ILU" as a suggested option. Now, just a period at the end of a sentence triggers "ILU" as a suggestion for my next word. Note, my iPhone only does this on texts to Sarah. Thank goodness.

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March 23—Due West

Photo through airline window of cloudsClouds are covering the landscape to the horizon. Faith is all I have to go on.

Back on the road again—actually, in the air as I leave the Eastern Seaboard and stretch west the geographical boundary of the Shakespeare Canon Project: 38 Plays, 38 Theaters, 1 Year. I’m flying to Mesa, Arizona, where next week I will visit with the Southwest Shakespeare Company and see its production of Henry IV, Part One. I’m tacking on a sidetrip to Los Angeles where the Independent Shakespeare Company is opening its new studio theater with William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

All is not well, however, as my every second thought is back home where my wife is either recovering from or beginning another medical mystery. Three years on from her two-front contentions with thyroid cancer and a mysterious heart ailment (my account of that year is at "A Happy Birthday: Enduring Wind and Weather"), we were back in the emergency room this past Wednesday. Sarah was suffering intense nausea and disorientation (she didn’t describe it at first as dizziness because it was a different kind of spinning sensation than she experienced during her heart-pausing moments three years ago). So, I got my socks and her shoes on her (she has a new closet—I couldn’t find her socks), walked her down the stairs, bundled her up, and got her into the back seat of our car.

Do the calendar math: Wednesday morning we were at the height of a winter storm that would end up dumping several inches of snow on our cul de sac. Even major thoroughfares hadn’t been plowed yet. I made my way past a pas de deux of minivans pirouetting on the snow-capped ice then serving as the Fairfax County Parkway.

I hate to say how much I’ve become a veteran of hospital rooms, protocols, and technology, thanks to caring for my dad and Sarah. The nurse was impressed that I knew how to raise and lower Sarah’s bed. I also was keeping my eyes on the vital signs monitor. Nothing amiss except her body temperature: it was dangerously low. Vertigo was the diagnosis, but lab tests, CT scan, and chest X-ray (impressive how much care the technician took with her getting those X-rays) revealed no underlying cause; and the low body temperature remains a mystery, given how all her other vitals were fine.

After five hours on intravenous feeding and medication and lying under a dozen hospital blankets, Sarah was feeling better, back up to normal hotness, and cleared to go home. By now, the roads were cleared (as was our driveway: we’ve got great neighbors, whom I had texted as we were leaving so that they knew why we weren’t home, and one brought Sarah a pot of delicious chicken soup). Sarah spent most of yesterday in bed and medicated while I pondered cancelling this trip.

Photo through airline window of desert landscapeShe, of course, insisted that I do not: she has her work computer with her and can do her job at home; I’ve left her plenty of meals to microwave (meant for lunches at work, but suitable for quick, no-hassle feeding); and the neighbors are keeping an eye on her. I’ve suffered vertigo myself and, really, there isn’t much you can do about it or with it until the condition eases after a few days.

Nevertheless, I worry, about today, the next week, or if more is in store. When I launched the Shakespeare Canon Project, always casting a shadow over the attempt was lingering effects of Sarah’s previous illnesses. Her current vertigo may not be related, but it put to the test just three months into the year and six plays into the canon our joint resolve to do this thing and to chronicle the journey, come what may. It’s all about experiencing Shakespeare’s relevance in our time and in our daily lives.

No quote comes to mind right now, but perhaps it’s instructive that tomorrow night I will be seeing a play titled All’s Well That Ends Well, the story of a woman’s steadfast faith; hmm, a woman who, as a trained doctor, heals the king. Is that the thematic arc to this Canon Project trip?

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March 6—Huh! Un-Gahwah! Shakespeare's Got the Power!

Anna Katerina Baryshnikov, who made her cinematic debut in Manchester by the Sea and starred on the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts, appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in April 2017 where she revealed that in the neighborhood where she grew up about 30 minutes north of New York City, "the cool thing to do was Shakespeare performed only by children." She compared the community's enthusiasm for this children's Shakespeare theater to other towns' infatuation with high school football.

"Shakespeare for children?" Colbert repeats chuckling, and this gets a laugh from his audience. Baryshnikov, slightly giggling, says the group even had a cheer. "You had a cheer?" Colbert asks. "What's your Shakespeare cheer? I hope it's in iambic pentameter." Cue laugh. Baryshnikov does the cheer: "Huh! Un-Gawah! Shakespeare's got the Power!" (pronounced, Pow-wah).

Actually, this isn't merely a cheer. It's one of the many warm-up exercises that casts do before rehearsals and plays at that very Children's Shakespeare Theatre (CST) in Rockland County, New York. Some of the other warm-up chants are far funkier than that, and impossible to replicate phonetically in the written word. Skimmed context, however, is the fodder for late night talk show laughs, and the notion that a neighborhood would be so eccentric as to get excited over children doing Shakespeare—imagine that! Children doing Shakespeare!—is in itself a punchline (by the way, CST draws participants not from a single neighborhood but from communities all across the region).

Diana Green sitting on a tiny child's chair gives instruction to kids sitting on the floor around her
Diana Green, founding artistic director of the Children's Shakespeare Theatre in Palisades, New York, gives director's notes to the cast, all between the ages of 8 and 14, of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Eric Minton.

Children's Shakespeare Theatre has been making me laugh since before this episode of Colbert's show aired: but it was Touchstone, Phoebe, Corin, Rosalind, and Orlando in As You Like It that were funny because the actors, all between 8 and 14, played those parts so well. It was the 17-year-old Amalia Baker playing the Fool that blew me away in Queen Lear (nee, King Lear) a month before Colbert led his audience's laughter over the notion of children playing Shakespeare as Baryshnikov sat on his couch. That audience wouldn't be laughing if they encountered Regan from that production. Here is my review's description of that performance:

"What makes the eye-gouging scene so arresting is not because teens are doing it but because it shows how scary Regan is as a character (and how scary good Elinor Greenway is playing her). For the actual eye-gouging, Gloucester (Kai Canoll) has his back to us as Cornwall (Phoenix Dalto) does the deed, sparing us our view of it. However, the second eyeball ends up in the possession of Regan, who drops it on the floor and stomps on it with such ferocious gusto—resulting in substantial blood spray—it generates gasps in the audience (and some covering up of eyes, too). Yet, we could see this demonstrative behavior coming in Greenway's performance of a disturbed Regan dealing with pent-up mommy issues."

Cue, what? Not laughter but respect. Colbert and anybody else who laugh or shake their heads or respond incredulously to children doing Shakespeare need to remember that many of Shakespeare's greatest roles—Rosalind, Viola, Olivia, Portia, Juliet—were specifically written for youths to play.

The name Baryshnikov is a familiar one beyond Anna's rising star, and her face is a dead giveaway to her genetic makeup. She is the daughter of dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lisa Rinehart. Here is another bit of context: three of their children spent "several years" performing in Diana Green's Children's Shakespeare Theatre.

It is the quality of CST's work that drew me to its production of The Merchant of Venice this past weekend. That was certainly worth the trip; however, I'm heading home today with a bit of sadness. During my time here in Rockland County I've also attended rehearsals of the company's upcoming plays this season, The Winter's Tale and Romeo and Juliet. The latter will be the next to hit the stage in mid-April, and it also will tour to a middle school in Brooklyn. Having witnessed Sunday's rehearsal of it, I would love to get back up here to see it. But other plays in the canon at other theaters in America must be my priority.

There's always next year and beyond: Huh! Un-Gahwah! Children's Shakespeare Theatre's Got the Power!

To see the clip of Baryshnikov's appearance on Colbert, click here.

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The Merchant of Venice, Children's Shakespeare Theatre
Palisades Presbyterian Church, Palisades, New York
, March 3

The Knaves are crowded onto the platform at the back of the stage in the Palisades Presbyterian Church's parish house. This is the community hall in the tiny, white-clapboard, steep-ceilinged church in a wooded big-home neighborhood along the Hudson River just across the New York border from New Jersey.

The church, white with gray shingle roof, a capped steeple at the front, trees all around, an extension jutting out at the back right.
The Palisades Presbyterian Church where the Children's Shakespeare Theatre performs its plays in the Parish House at the back. Below, the Prince of Morocco's card, good for a discount at his tanning salons. Photos by Eric Minton

By Knaves we mean the younger company of actors in the Children's Shakespeare Theatre (CST) in Palisades, New York: these are kids ages 8 to 14 (the other company, the Rogues, are teens 14–18). It's talk-back time after the curtain calls for their production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The audience, many parents, many siblings, many friends, and a few "general public," range in age from second grade to senior discount eligible, and the questions run the gamut of topics.

"What's it like to act blindfolded?" a little girl asks Alex Barsanti, who plays the "sand-blind" Old Gobbo. "It's really cool," Barsanti replies, describing how he keeps bumping into the audience.

"What's it like to play falling in love?" a member of the Rogues asks, having obviously had to do so herself when she was a Knave. "It's weird," replies Ethan Lee, who plays Bassanio, the young Venetian who courts and wins Portia. "But then you get to know the other person and it's OK." These are kids, remember.

"What's the moral of the story?" a man asks. After some disjointed comments about needing to respect people who are different and Cooper Rosen describing his approach to playing Shylock, 10-year-old Hela Giaever, who plays Shylock's daughter, says, "You need to know someone's backstory before you judge them." Into the silence that follows this profound truism, Cole Massaro, who plays Antonio, Shylock's enemy, speaks: "There are no heroes and villains in life; everybody is much deeper than that."

These are kids, remember. In my lifetime, children and young adults have been at the vanguard of the great social movements: the civil rights marches, boycotts, and Freedom Rides in the 1960s; the anti-war protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s; the gun control debate today. I also grew up in the shadow of "The Greatest Generation," who were teens and in their early 20s when they forged their greatness. Are these kids old enough to tackle the racism in The Merchant of Venice? They're tackling it every day in the news and in their communities, where, here in Rockland County, hate crimes are on the rise.

Yes, but can they tackle Shakespeare? Remember, these are kids—so of course they can. They tend to adapt to Shakespeare's language more swiftly and thoroughly than stubborn adults do. This doesn't mean they all are great Shakespearean actors, but some I'll put in the company of my faves from the 18 previous productions of this play I've seen. Adam Greenberg is not only hilarious as Gratiano, Bassanio's overly gregarious buddy, he brings real empathy to the character in the trial scene. Liam Rigney's Launcelot had me in stitches with his fiend vs. conscience schtick and throughout the rest of his appearances, landing every joke and making clear the social contexts of his behavior.

Diana Green, CST's founding artistic director who helmed this production, never holds back from either the subject matter or the language in the plays her charges stage. She has a thorough, studied understanding of Shakespeare, and her rehearsals feature as much instruction on verse structure and social and language contexts as on character development and blocking. This means that while she puts Merchant's social debate front and center, she also embraces the play's comic DNA.

Card with "999-TAN-MEEE; Prince CEO Moroccan Sands Tanning Salons, Beverly Hills" on a leopard print backgroundThis production generates much textual and visual humor (all legitimate laughs, not "aren't-they-cute" titters), from Gratiano's and Launcelot's spiels to Portia's royal suitors who must choose among three chests—gold, silver, and lead—to discover her picture and win her as wife. Journee Benjamin playing Portia is African-American, so Green wanted a boy of a different complexion to play the Prince of Morocco. That complexion is orange as the Prince is CEO of Moroccan Sands Tanning Salon (I know this because his entourage hands out cards good for a 50 percent discount). With an unhealthy glow to his skin except the pale circles around his eye sockets, George Kozaitis's Prince also has the hair, gestures, and conversational cadence of Donald J. Trump. Certainly, there's social commentary in his courting a woman of color, but read for yourself Morocco's meditations on "dull lead" and "angel" gold in Trumpian manner and tell me it's not a perfect match.

The entourages for both Morocco and the Prince of Arragon are the play's comic highlights: a half dozen actors in shining silver or gold shirts and hats as they dance and party with Morocco, and wearing black shirts and silver sashes as they fawn over their overly dramatic idol, Arragon, played by Jasper Macri in glimmering silver jacket. Launcelot and Gratiano serve as Bassanio's entourage, entering in a soulful R&B sway to Anita Baker's "Sweet Love."

While I treat CST productions (this is the third I've seen) with the same standard as I do those of any other Shakespearean staging, the fact that these are kids does factor into how I receive this presentation of The Merchant of Venice: it's not merely a play about racism, it's a play about bullying. Antonio bullies Shylock, and when Shylock gets the economic upper hand, he bullies Antonio. The various Christians bully Shylock, but they also bully each other. All the suitors are bullies, and doesn't Portia bully Shylock and, in the last scene, Bassanio, too? Even Launcelot is part and parcel of this theme, the way he bullies his blind father while Lorenzo bullies him. This is not a theme Green's production calls attention to in its staging; I'm just seeing that track for the first time merely because I'm watching school kids in these roles.

The play also is about bonds, not just the loan bond at the center of the Shylock plot but also the bonds of love (the rings) and duty (the chests), and the bonds that bound all members of a society, which is integral to Venice's city charter that serves as a subtext to the trial scene. In my conversations with the actors, their parents, and CST alumni this weekend, I keep hearing the exact same word over and over: community. These kids come from all over the region to participate in Green's program, which she founded 20 years ago, and they form close bonds that last into their adulthoods. Cole's mom, Karen Massaro, describes parents sitting in the church driveway for up to 40 minutes after rehearsals are supposed to end because the kids just don't want to leave; but that's fine because the parents form their own bonds, too. You see this community spirit in the hugs among the audience members before the play and in the handshakes and fond smiles of the actors during curtain calls.

Sitting next to me on this night is a mother, Karen Hughes, a risk management program project manager for a Wall Street firm and president of the Nyack School District Board of Education (sitting with board of education leaders at plays is becoming a trend on this Shakespeare Canon Project). Her son, Nicolas Hughes Barrow, joined the Knaves three years ago and is now a newcomer to the Rogues. Through Nicolas, Hughes is reacquainting herself with Shakespeare, whom she left behind after reading Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar in high school. They now attend Free Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park and have twice been to England, seeing Shakespeare's Globe and visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, where, at Shakespeare's Birthplace, a docent selected Nicolas to read Hamlet's "To be" speech—Nicolas did it beautifully, she says in awe of what he's learned in Green's program.

Hughes is attending with Nicolas, both to show their support for the Knaves. But there's more than that for her. "I'm here to see the play," she says. "The last three years have been an education for me. I haven't been to a bad Shakespeare performance." Not in London, not in Central Park, and not here in the Palisades Presbyterian Church's parish house. I concur—at least in regards to Shakespeare performances here.

To see the full review, click here.

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March 2—It’s The Bomb—Again

What is it about Fiasco and nor’easters? When we drove up to New York City on January 5 to see the theater company’s Twelfth Night at Classic Stage Company, we arrived at the tail end of what meteorologists were calling a bomb cyclone. That's essentially a winter hurricane, when a cold air mass collides with a warm air mass causing a rapid drop in barometric pressure that creates windy cold and wet conditions. Before then I’d never heard the term bomb cyclone; now I’m hearing it again, today as I’m driving into, yep, New York City to see, yep, Fiasco. This time I’m interviewing the three founding members of the company, Noah Brody, Ben Steinfeld, and Jessie Austrian, to talk about their particular theatrical aesthete, Twelfth Night in general and theirs in particular, and New York City’s relationship with William Shakespeare.

Neither the Fiasco folks nor I could schedule this interview when I was up here in January, so I piggy-backed this meeting onto my trip to see The Merchant of Venice at the Children’s Shakespeare Theatre (CST) in Palisades, New York, about an hour's drive up river depending on the traffic—and the weather. I’m currently sitting in a Schnippers at 8th Avenue and 41st Street. Self-proclaimed famous for its sloppy joes, Schnippers is an efficient and economical source of good burgers, dogs, sandwiches, salads, and “Macs and Joes.” Outside, the rain is falling like Niagara and the wind exploding down 8th Avenue is turning umbrellas convex; Mary Poppins would go supersonic before reaching 42nd Street. People, wrestling with zombie umbrellas, stumble through Schnippers' double doors—air locked tighter than a safe. They look relieved to have escaped even for a moment the maelstrom outside but wordlessly go about their business. No grousing. Even if you offer a friendly comment like, “That’s something else out there,” people look at you like you’re from Virginia.

According to my iPhone GPS I have a 9-minute walk to Fiasco’s office: enough time for a soak, rinse, and spin cycle all in one. So, time to bundle up, give my umbrella a pep talk, and head out into a storm that even Cassius might think too ominous. After the interview I have to drive back up to Palisades for Merchant’s Opening Night, the GPS timing it out at a couple minutes over one hour. The only thing worse than walking in this weather is driving in it, especially as the rain is now a "wintry mix" of sleet and snow. But I'm in New York; join the jam (I love New York, even in this mess).

This day's consistent theme isn't the weather, however. My interviews, first with Fiasco and then with people associated with Diana Green's Children's Shakespeare Theatre, end up focusing on the role of camaraderie in staging Shakespeare plays.

Fiasco was formed by young actors who sought to create productions out of a shared experience of discovering the plays. Brody describes his early days bouncing around as an actor in New York when the 9/11 terrorist attack shook him into a deeper self-evaluation. Not only did he feel he was far from his potential capabilities as an actor, he noted that he didn't have "a community that I felt was nourishing me." That drew him to the Brown University/Trinity Rep resident theater MFA program. There he not only earned his master's of fine arts in theater, he learned the merits of an ensemble approach to creating theater. This is especially true with Shakespeare, as Fiasco's casts tease out the themes and individual personalities in the plays to reveal wondrously fresh productions.

Later, in the Palisades Presbyterian Church where CST stages its productions, I meet Jonah Levine, 22 years old, a recent graduate of Williams College with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. On Monday he starts his job in a spinal cord research program at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Levine grew up in CST, debuting when he was in middle school as a numbered soldier in one of the Henry plays and getting disemboweled. "That really did it for me," he says, and went on to a career playing Richard III ("As an eighth grader, that was viscerally satisfying"), Hamlet ("Split personality") and Cornwall in King Lear ("Ripping out some eyes"). Levine always loved Shakespeare's language and attributes many life lessons to the plays, but his foundational memory of CST and the atmosphere Green strives to inculcate among the casts is the camaraderie. He has no friends from high school, but he stays in touch with the wide array of kids he played with as cast mates in Palisades while in high school; indeed, his new boss is the mother of some of his former cast mates.

As we head out into the church's community room that serves as the theater, I mention that as a reviewer I analyze these productions as Shakespearean presentations, not harping on age of the cast, not regarding shortcomings in skill levels of the actors (whatever their age). "The true value is not the performance," Levine says. "It's the process."

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March 1—Field and Dream

About to depart on my next trip, this one to Palisades, New York, to see the Children's Shakespeare Theater's production of The Merchant of Venice—a perfect production at a perfect time as teens have a lot to say on social issues right now. In my mind, though, I'm grousing about the summer and, specifically, an addition to the itinerary for the Shakespeare Canon Project: 38 Plays, 38 Theaters, 1 Year.

MLB All Star Game flyerThis story begins three years ago. At Christmas, my wife and I each state a dream wish tied to one of our favorite passions, and we set out to achieve that dream together. Sarah's big wish that year: to attend the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati. So I began booking rooms and working on getting tickets. Just ahead of that 2015 baseball season, the Washington Nationals were named host of the 2018 All-Star Game. We changed our strategy, abandoning efforts to make the Cincinnati game and instead upgraded our partial season ticket plan with the Nationals to half-season tickets in order to get guaranteed first crack at tickets to this year's All-Star Game. In fact, I paid the first installment on our All-Star tickets just last week, and we're one row back and over a few seats from our usual seats.

The All-Star Game on July 17 will be part of a five-day festival for the city. There is a Fan Fest, a Futures All-Star Game played by minor league players destined for the Majors, an open-to-the-public workout by the players, and the Home Run Derby all before the actual All Star Game on Tuesday evening. When the dates for this year were set last August, I booked a room in a hotel across the street from Nationals Park for the duration of all the festivities.

This was all before the Canon Project took root. Still, I knew that I would need some enforced "oblivion breaks" during the year (set your life to a no-obligation-setting and recharge the brain and spirit); the five-day All-Star block in the middle of July seemed perfect for that purpose, never mind that I would be knocking a week out of the schedule of so many plays I needed to see.

However, this week I learned the date for a production always destined to be featured in the Canon Project, Taffety Punk's "Bootleg Shakespeare" Henry VI, Part Three, rehearsed in one day and performed that one and only night at the Folger Theatre. That one night: July 16. So, on the itinerary it now sits. What can I do? It's Henry VI, Part Three, so it's not like I've got other options. It's rehearsed and staged in one day, so it's not like I have other dates. It's Taffety Punk, one of my favorite companies. It's the Folger—duh! It's the day of the All-Star Workout and Home Run Derby. Oh well.

At least Sarah still gets her big wish (and on my bucket list, too), to attend the All-Star Game. Though I lose one day of festivities (and interrupt my oblivion break), I have a friend ready to pounce on our Home Run Derby tickets. But I'm guessing he might only get one of our pair of tickets: Sarah has yet to opt out of the Home Run Derby in order to see Henry.

Speaking of Henry, also added to the Canon Project itinerary is Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of Henry IV, Part One, in Mesa, Arizona, at the end of March. I'll be home in time for the Nationals Opening Day.

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Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending,
Valley Shakespeare Festival
Tavern 1757, Seymour, Connecticut
, February 15

Tom Simonetti is from the Valley, a cluster of small cities and large towns along the Connecticut River. It's populations is mostly working-class people, resiliently powering through the economic ebbs and flows of the past several decades and dedicated to their community: the Valley. Though located in southwest Connecticut almost equidistance between New York City and Hartford, the Valley is geographically isolated from a mass transit perspective. Valley residents might have an appreciation for culture but no convenient access to the cultural institutions of the Northeast Corridor.

Simonetti leaning against bar in flowery blue print shirt, gray jacket single buttoned, blue scarf around his neck
Tom Simonetti, founding artistic director of the Valley Shakespeare Festival, stands at the Tavern 1757 bar before his production of Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending. Photos by Eric Minton.

Simonetti is a theater artist, an actor and director who honed his craft in New York. He also has Valley DNA. From the time he was in college he dreamed of bringing a Shakespeare festival to the Valley. Even if he didn't sense a demand, he knew the need, and as he was just nearing his 30th birthday, he founded the Valley Shakespeare Festival (VSF) and staged its first free play, The Comedy of Errors, for one weekend in the summer of 2013 in downtown Shelton's Veteran's Memorial Park. Simonetti estimates a hundred people showed up that first night. Each night, the crowds grew. They continue to grow, averaging 400 to 500 per show, even in rain.

One person who attended that first year was Mark S. Holden, an insurance agent and chairman of the Shelton Public Schools. Growing up in nearby Trumbull, he remembers, a Shakespeare acting troupe would visit his school with "gorgeous costumes and props and absolutely horrid actors, people who knew their lines but didn't know what they meant." Most of his life he "knew Shakespeare was someone I was supposed to like," but he didn't know why until he saw Simonetti's troupe put on Shakespeare with "$50 worth of costumes and props and great actors." He approached Simonetti about taking his productions to the schools.

This played right into Simonetti's dream. He didn't just want to do free Shakespeare in the park of his hometown. He wanted to build a local institution, one with a professional (i.e., Equity) foundation, one with a workable business plan, one that would address the needs of literacy and access to theater throughout all elements of Valley society. In addition to visiting schools, VSF also tours senior centers and homeless shelters, doing workshops and performing plays. They also stage plays in bars.

Tavern 1757 front entranceHolden is sharing a high table with me this night at Tavern 1757. We are among the 80-plus people who have filled the restaurant's upstairs banquet room (with a bar) to capacity to see Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending, a one-hour adaptation of Shakespeare's play by Ann Fraistat and Shawn Fraistat. At three points the audience votes on a decision Romeo must make, and depending on their choices the play continues into one of eight endings, ranging from everybody living and happy to everybody dying and angry.

The Fraistats supplement Shakespeare's verse (mostly from Romeo and Juliet, but other plays, too) with some modern applications of thou and thine. Nurse identifies Juliet to Romeo or Benvolio (depending on the track) with "Marry, bachelor, her mother is the lady of the house, and a good lady, and a wise and virtuous. I nursed her daughter that you talked withal. So whate're you're thinking, Montague, hands off!" The play is also infused with clever digs at Romeo and Juliet's own plot, characters, and conventions.

I've been in the Valley for three days and hanging out with Simonetti and his cast for rehearsals. I've been exposed to three things: a Valley-wide spirit of community fealty and generosity; a Valley-wide admiration for Simonetti and VSF Company Manager Cheryl O'Brien; and the talent of this cast, all of whom welcome the challenge of playing Shakespeare in a bar. Jeremy Funke, playing an attention-deficit Mercutio and the randy Nurse, and Jack D. Martin, playing workout wonk Paris and an arrogant Tybalt, leave their fellow actors in stitches. The entire cast comprises New York-based actors (most originally from the Valley) except one: 16-year-old Valley resident Killian Meehan playing Romeo with only three years of stage experience and learning stage combat for the first time in this production. Meehan nevertheless leads the charge for the entire production with a commanding presence in a character that is more straight man than blubbering lover in this version.

On this night, those tracks of my own Valley experience entwine for an incredible communal and Shakespearean event. Certainly, some in the audience are friends and family of company members, but the majority are VSF fans generating a cult-following buzz. Rosaline is played by Jessica Breda, identified in the production's flier not by any of the many roles she's played but as "VSF Audience Favorite!" She clearly is. As Romeo, having to choose between Rosaline and Juliet (Ella Smith, channeling 13-year-old essence), introduces the two women for the first time, Breda gets an especially enthusiastic greeting. Then, too, the audience has already shouted for Romeo to stick with Rosaline.

"Embrace the wacky," Simonetti tells his cast before a final run-through in the afternoon. This evening, with only a couple days to rehearse and most with script in hand, the cast not only embraces the wacky, it embraces the atmosphere and the audience, too. Funke's Mercutio switches "lawyer" to "architect" in the Queen Mab speech as he addresses a man who, based on audience reaction, is known among the Valley as an architect. The audience not only gets this Valley insider joke, it gets the play's Shakespeare insider jokes, too, such as Juliet taking over both sides of the meet-up sonnet because Benvolio (Sam Plattus playing an awkward teen) doesn't get poetry. Because the audience chooses Romeo to stick with Rosaline, Benvolio hits on Juliet with "rub a dub dub, it's time for some love." The audience's votes send the play to the "flurple ending." Everybody in the play dies and everybody watching the play is happy.

With School Board Chairman Holden talking of VSF's impact in the schools, I think back to my conversation earlier in the day with Valerie Knight-Di Gangi, program officer for the Valley Community Foundation. "The schools always want them back," she says. "Schools can't afford the time or resources to bring people back unless it's worthwhile."

By reports I've heard, Valley Shakespeare Festival is worthwhile in the schools, in a public park, in a library, in homeless shelters, and in senior citizen centers. I can attest that it is worthwhile in taverns, too.

For the review, click here

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February 14—Flurple Reigns

Yes, it's Valentine's Day. And I'm apart from my valentine as I'm on my own up here in Shelton, Connecticut. So what? She was in the Air Force. I'm a journalist. For the first dozen or so years of our courtship and marriage, we didn't spend a single Valentine's Day together, as she was deployed or doing distant duty somewhere or I was traveling on assignments. For many of the past dozen years my dad-care duties had me away from home on Valentine's Day, too. Even when we do happen to be home together on February 14, we treat it as just another day—probably because we approach every day of the year as our valentine's day.

The cast paired off and clowning in a rehearsal room
Valley Shakespeare Festival Founding Artistic Director Tom Simonetti (center with script) leads the cast into the multitrack script of Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending by William Shakespeare, Ann Fraistat, and Shawn Fraistat during rehearsals in Shelton Connecticut. From left: Sam Plattus (Benvolio, Capulet), Ella Smith (Juliet), Jeremy Funke (Mercutio, Nurse), Jack D. Martin (Tybalt, Paris, Montague), Jessica Breda (Rosaline, Friar Laurence), and Killian Meehan (Romeo). Photo by Cheryl O'Brien, Valley Shakespeare Festival.

I've spent all of today with Romeo and Juliet—and Mercutio and Nurse, Tybalt and Paris, Benvolio and Capulet, Montague and Friar Laurence, and an unexpectedly inordinate amount of time with Rosaline. Today has been day three (of 3 1/2 days total) for the Valley Shakespeare Festival's six-person cast, plus Artistic Director Tom Simonetti, to rehearse Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending before its performance in a bar at Tavern 1757 tomorrow night. The play by Ann Fraistat and Shawn Fraistat (and William Shakespeare, of course) stops at three points for the audience to vote on the fate of the young lovers, starting with whether Romeo should pursue Juliet or stay true to Rosaline.

That means a total of eight different potential endings, a one-hour show with a 147-page script. Simonetti and the actors have to rehearse each track—just the logistics of keeping each track and its blocking straight is mind-blowing—for a one-night performance. Seven-eighths of what they are working on today will not see the public light of day. Talk about dedication.

Turns out I have a lot at stake in the audience's choices tomorrow night, too. I've seen all the endings. Indeed, for their single run-through at the end of a nine-hour day of rehearsal, I served as the audience, voting on which turn the play would take. It's a lot of responsibility, especially as the script includes direct addresses reminding the audience that characters' fates are in their hands so don't [screw] it up (this play is distinctly adult material): kind of disconcerting to have actors level the f-word with the full force of a glare directly at me.

But it wasn't just them. I knew which conclusion I wanted: the Flurple ending. And I still got it wrong, as I hadn't figured out how all the tracks pieced together (as I said, the logistics is mind-blowing, and I'm not playing in or directing it). Well, maybe I got it right because I led everybody to a happy ending; everybody but me who wanted the Flurple ending.

So, on this Valentine's Day night, my loving energy goes out to tomorrow's sold-out audience at Tavern 1757; may your votes lead us all to a Flurple ending.

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February 13—500 and Counting

Back on the road—on the Jersey Turnpike again, no less, at the Woodrow Wilson Service Plaza around mile marker 59. This time I'm heading for a dinner date with the folks of the Valley Shakespeare Festival in Shelton, Connecticut.

This journal entry, however, is marking a milestone of another sort, one on my life's journey. Valley Shakespeare Festival's Romeo and Juliet: Choose Your Own Ending that I'll be seeing on Thursday will be my 501st live staged William Shakespeare production.

Number 500 came this past Saturday.

Coriolanus, Brave Spirits Theatre
The Lab at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia, February 10

Brave Spirits is one of my favorite companies, and I've long admired the work of its young artistic director, Charlene V. Smith, who brings an intelligent textual dynamic and visual creativity to her stagings of Shakespeare's work. This Coriolanus, in fact, started in the lobby, the entire first scene played among us before we headed into the theater. Once in the small studio theater, seats set up in a square around the playspace, the action unfolded among us and with electric energy. Virgilia, knitting a pair of pants, sat next to me through most of the play's first half, even as she was speaking her lines in the play's third scene. That same seat was then occupied by Aufidius for the second half; it was like sitting next to a coiled cobra, a bit disconcerting but part of the visceral aesthete of the entire production.

Brave Spirits had originially been the representative theater for Coriolanus, but when I inserted Pointless Theatre's Imogen into the matrix, my need to spread out the Canon Project's geography trumped my desire to profile Brave Spirits. That was a hard call for me, too, as the company plans to stage the entire Shakespeare history cycle as a repertoire in 2020, a sequential staging of the eight War of the Roses plays reflecting on current political conditions. That's exactly something I've envisioned since I was in college (current political conditions are always fraught, it seems). However, when my choice for King Lear, Synetic Theater also in Northern Virginia, dropped that play from its schedule, I reinserted Brave Spirits's Coriolanus to the mix. The production is just that good.

It should be obvious by now that I am not restricting my theater attendance this year just to Canon Project entries. We have subscriptions to Brave Spirits and other theaters in the region, and when I'm visiting a company staging more than the play I'm including in the Canon Project I intend to see as many of their other productions as I can fit in. I know this means not only more scheduling headaches but also more work, as I plan to review all the plays I see, but it all pays off in the experience.

Already just six weeks into the year, in addition to four Canon Project plays I've attended the best Hamlet I've ever seen (American Shakespeare Center), a production that is among the best theater experiences I've ever had, and now I've seen Brave Spirits' scintillating Coriolanus.

Those Shakespearean productions were number 498 and, of course, 500 in my lifelong tally, proof that you can never see enough Shakespeare.

For the review, click here

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Imogen (née Cymbeline), Pointless Theatre
The Dance Loft on 14, Washington, D.C., February 10

We shall start our interrogation of William Shakespeare's feminist cred by challenging his choice of title for this play, Cymbeline. The titular king of Britain has, at 290 lines, just 8 percent of the script. His daughter, Imogen, has more than twice that: 594 lines which, at 16 percent, is so dominant that the next-largest speaking part, her husband Posthumus Leonatus, gets 12 percent of the total with his 442 lines (I'm indebted to ShakespeareWords.com for line counts and the Royal Shakespeare Company's edition of William Shakespeare Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, for percentages). King Cymbeline is such an insignificant puppet manipulated by the Queen, Imogen's stepmother, in his own play that this production presents him as just that: a hand puppet manipulated (and spoken) by the Queen (Hilary Morrow).

It's more than just word counts. This is Imogen's play, her story. All plot threads—the banished husband, the chastity wager, the court intrigue, the lost princes, Rome's invasion of Britain—wind through Imogen on their way to being audaciously tied up in Shakespeare's deftest denouement. By titling her adaptation Imogen, Charlie Marie McGrath, who also directed this Pointless Theatre production, is setting the record straight, a starting point for not only honing the play's focus on Imogen but also revisiting Shakespeare's tragicomedy through a woman's lens.

Business district street, rain soaked sidewalk, and matress store to front left, with "Big Sale" board in front and matress leaning against wall

Imogen poster on small sandwich board sign stand in front of a glass door with metal-bar gate opened
The Dance Loft on 14 is a complex of dance studios plus a small theater upstairs in a building housing a mattress showroom on 14th Street in Northwest Washington, D.C. Pointless Theatre uses this space to stage its production of Imogen, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Photos by Eric Minton.

This production is part of the Capital Region's Women's Voices Theater Festival during which 24 theaters in and around D.C. are staging plays written and directed by women. As McGrath is doing with her retitled version of Cymbeline, the Women's Voices Theater Festival is intended to highlight the too-often-downplayed role of women in theater and, as McGrath writes in her Imogen program notes, "a correction of a deficit, a need, a desperate need to put women's voices at the forefront of 21st century American theater."

With Imogen, the nine-year-old Pointless Theatre is making its first foray into Shakespeare. Our getting to the company's current space, The Dance Loft on 14, is a foray in itself, though it's only 30 miles from our house. We give up on our confounded GPS to find street parking in a two-block business district of 14th Street that otherwise traverses a middle-class residential area. We park in front of a mattress store housed in a drab-yellow Mediterranean-style building. Across the street is the bus barn for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority; based on its gothic fortress architecture it was probably the original economic engine for this mid-20th century Northwest D.C. neighborhood. As I look about, Sarah spots the banner over the mattress showroom entrance: The Dance Loft on 14. Imogen posters point us to the door, and up the stairs we reach a complex of dance studios and the 68-seat theater where Imogen is playing, all carved out of what appears to have once been a 1930s-era ballroom.

Pointless Theatre productions merge live action with shadow puppetry and layer scripts with heavy doses of music and movement. McGrath, a product of Chicago's rich theater scene and assistant director for several productions downtown at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, approached Pointless Theater about applying their aesthete to her idea for remaking Cymbeline. In addition to Cymbeline as a hand puppet, shadow puppetry is used to illustrate off-stage elements of the plot, from Leonatus fighting with Cloten before sailing into banishment to Guiderius, represented as a bear, knocking off Cloten's head in the Welsh woods. The production begins in a fairy tale world with the medieval look of a children's book that transforms into modern dress as the play progresses.

Two musicians sitting in the corner of the stage provide a constant soundtrack of music and environmental sounds (composed by one of the musicians, Pointless Company Music Director Michael Winch). Choreographer Ryan Sellers creates mime and dance sequences for Fidele's funeral, the battle between the Britons and Romans (including strapping on body armor and then, locked and loaded, crouching with bent elbows to represent bearing rifles), and Imogen's disguising herself as Fidele, a nightmarish trip for the woman as the ensemble strips and re-dresses her on stage.

Think about that: for Katelyn Manfre's Imogen, a woman of determination and intelligence, becoming a man is a bad dream. “I am nothing,” she says soon after; “Or if not, nothing to be were better.” She has abundance of examples of the XY chromosome combination as a nightmarish state. Her father is a peevish blowhard. Her stepbrother is a crude lout with a violent temper. Her husband has accused her of adultery and wants to kill her for it. Iachimo is a slimy self-styled stud (which comes across as slimy jerk to the women). Emerging from the trunk in Imogen's bed chamber and wearing gloves with elongated fingers, Iachimo does more than just note her bed chamber, take her bracelet, and inspect her body: he slips those elongated fingers up Imogen's nightdress for his own private climax.

Not all men are bad: the two princes are pure honor and adorably played by Renaldo McClinton as Guiderius (who sheds real tears as he dances Fidele's funeral) and Kevin Thorne II as Arviragus (who sings the funeral dirge, the production's highlight moment and spurring those tears in Guiderius and some in the audience, too). But, then, they don't live in society, do they? And at this point Imogen hasn't met them yet. Not all men are men, either. The parts of Pisanio (Acacia Danielson) and Belarius (Lee Gerstenhaber) have been re-gendered, and that alone infuses the play with female perspectives, the lines they speak or are subjected to taking on #MeToo and Children's Health Insurance Program significance.

McGrath's adaptation remains relatively true to Shakespeare's text, though many lines are transplanted within the play and from other plays. She also transfers passages to a different character to suit her purpose. It is Imogen who forgives and pardons Iachimo at the end, not Leonatus (but, then, Leonatus doesn't seem capable of that), and it is Guiderius who pardons the Romans. Cymbeline has retired, a la Lear, leaving the princes and princess to rule in equipollence. "Never was a war did cease, ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace," Imogen speaks the final line. A fairy tale ending, perhaps, but not pointless.

For the review, click here.

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February 9—A Web of Imogenation

Yay! Fist-bump the spider! Eight times! Insider information assures me a Henry IV, Part 2, is coming to a stage this year. Then The Two Gentlemen of Verona showed up on a playbill as I caught up Bard on the Boards this week. All right! Another fist bump with the spider X8! As I started out the daunting task of creating my schedule of productions to attend the rest of the year, just three Shakespeare Canon titles had yet to find a home : Cymbeline, Henry VIII, and Henry VI, Part 2.

Piecing together my calendar based on the puzzle that is my Shakespeare Canon Project matrix provided a mix of bad news and good. As I expected, the run dates of so many must-see productions (plays appearing at only one theater this year) are jammed into a single timeframe between July 19 and August 5. Furthermore, a couple of regions ended up lacking representation on the calendar. This combination means I will have to forego a couple of really-want-to-see productions, sacrificing my desires for the greater cause.

Nevertheless, having laid out the calendar of potential productions for inclusion, this project's ultimate goal came into clearer focus: I will be able to see every play in the Shakespeare Canon that is produced on the North American continent this year, plus at least three apocryphal plays. It will take a lot of hustling and above-mentioned sacrifice, but the goal is within reach. I just need those last three missing titles to be staged somewhere.

In a seemingly unrelated matter, this week I also posted my review of the Folger Theatre's production of The Way of the World, Theresa Rebeck's modern adaptation of William Congreve's Restoration Era comedy. The production is part of the Women's Voices Theater Festival with 24 Capital Region companies currently staging plays written or directed by women. As I was about to toss the play program into my recycling bin, I glanced at the festival flyer, and a title caught my eye: Imogen.

Pointless Theatre in downtown Washington combines puppetry and other graphic elements with live action in its productions, and this particular outing does so with Shakespeare's play Cymbeline. The adaptation further retitles the play to focus on the play's true leading character, King Cymbeline's estranged daughter, Imogen. It thus fits another of my representative criteria, profiling an adaptation (this one by Charlie Marie McGrath). However, the play's run ends this weekend. Can I get tickets?

Yes, I can! So now, Cymbeline is in the fold for the Shakespeare Canon Project, I can check off "adaptation," and I don't have to fly cross-country or try to fit it in a three-week, cluttered window in late July. Serendipity strikes again. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! High-five the spider, post this update, and head downtown.

OK, about Spider. My dad had this plush toy spider next to his computer in his home office. I don't know when it showed up, where it came from, or anything about its backstory. My mom The furry stuffed spider doll sits on a glass desktop next to an Apple iMac and between a Shakespeare Canon mug, a calculator, and a hard drive, with memorabilia of Chaplain Minton in the backgroundcollected teddy bears and other plush animals, and because of her obsessive-compulsive nature she had more than 3,000 such critters of varying sizes and species at the time of her passing. "Spider" may have been one of them (I never heard it named), but dad obviously was attached to it. When mom and dad moved to their retirement center, Spider was one of the first items he packed in his office and unpacked in their new apartment. After his stroke when dad had to move out of his apartment to the center's assisted living wing, Spider accompanied the computer upstairs. Near the end of his life as his condition deteriorated, dad three times had to move to a new room for increased levels of care, and he would grab Spider and make sure it didn't get waylaid (he may have suspected I was coveting it; he would have been right).

Upon dad's passing, I took custody of Spider. It now sits next to my office computer. Because my dad's legacy is largely inspiring me to do the Shakespeare Canon Project, Spider serves as the physical representative for my father's spiritual presence, even accompanying me on my travels. He's a spider: not only does he fit easily in my bags, he likes tight spaces.

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February 7—It's a Puzzle

My parents once gave me a jigsaw puzzle of the moon. I've never been good with jigsaw puzzles. I was in junior high school at the time and I didn't think to report them to social services. Then my wife, Sarah, topped them: one Christmas a couple decades ago she gave me a 500-piece, double-sided jigsaw puzzle of The Beatles eponymous LP—better known as "The White Album." It's still in its shrink-wrapped box. She's still my wife, too.

And now I'm staring at my Shakespeare Canon Project matrix.

Traveling back and forth across the land, seeing all that Shakespeare and visiting all those theaters. What fun! Planning it all out, not so much. It is part of the adventure, but in manner much like the giant mosquitos that suck on you as you hike the Alaskan woods amid that land's majestic splendor (something I can look forward to in late July).

Timing, I knew, would be the biggest contention as so many productions were bound to land during the festival season, June through September. It's worse than I could even imagine, as most of the productions—including so many on my "must do" list—are playing in a three-week period from the end of July into August. Further exacerbating this jam is the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on July 17 hosted by our Washington Nationals. Attending this game has been our primary baseball goal for three years; we even became season ticket holders three years ago to get first crack at tickets. And it's not just the game; it's the four days of festivities and showcase games from Saturday through the game Tuesday night. As soon as the date for the game was announced last August I booked a hotel room for us across from the ballpark downtown. And now that has trimmed my Canon Project opportunities significantly. As for the rest of our season ticket games, I'm content to miss a bunch this year.

So, back to the matrix. I'm working with several different priorities. Number One, to see all 38 plays in the traditional canon (the First Folio contents plus Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen) and productions of Shakespeare's poetry or apocryphal plays as a bonus. Equal priority is to see each play in a different theater.

Next priority is to cover the breadth of the land, starting with the four corners of the continent: Miami (done), Fairbanks, and San Diego are on the table, as is Hawaii if I can work out the schedule (I'm quibbling with the definition of continent here). As for the northeast corner, my preferred theater, Shakespeare by the Sea in Newfoundland, is currently in flux, but I have fall-back options.

Along with the continental corners I aim to get to at least two productions in each of 12 regions: New England, New York Metro, Middle Atlantic, Deep South, Mid-South, Industrial Midwest, Agricultural Midwest, Rockies, Southwest, West, Northwest, and Canada. The borders of these regions are blurry. I intend to limit myself to no more than five productions per region, but that midsummer traffic jam of plays might force my hand off this standard. Once I make sure I have a proper geographical spread, I'll focus on covering a full spectrum of theater spaces and production styles.

With about 30 theaters linked on Shakespeareances.com still to announce their 2018 titles, three plays have not yet shown up on this year's playbills: Henry VI, Part Two,Henry VIII, and Cymbeline (so, anybody know of productions of either, email me at editorial@shakespeareances.com). Ironically, it's not lack of plays but too many productions of the same play that's giving me fits. Why are so many theaters this year doing All's Well That Ends Well, Love's Labour's Lost, and King John? Then there's Macbeth. With that one it's not just the number but variation of styles, too: the experimental version at Shakespearemachine in Fort Wayne, Indiana (in November, yes!), or the Elizabethan stage setup at Lake Tahoe (by the lake, yes!), or the Aaron Posner and Teller version at Chicago Shakespeare (in The Yard theater, yes!). Ultimately, I might be painted into a corner with Macbeth, as it were, making this debate moot.

All these Macbeths, but not necessarily enough Shakespeare variety to spread out my calendar or attain my regional goals. When Sarah and I were first laying out the ideas for the Canon Project, we had a short list of theaters and festivals we wanted to visit, some longtime favorites, some places we have never been (in fact, one of my goals is for at least half of the productions I see to be at venues new to me). Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise was on that short list; we've been there twice and love the theater and the productions. However, for 2018, of the five plays the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is staging, only one is by Shakespeare: yep, Macbeth. This is a notable trend at Shakespeare-named theaters. Of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 11 titles this year, only four are by the namesake playwright, plus one about the namesake playwright. At least they're not doing Macbeth, but three of their four Shakespeare titles I've already assigned to other theaters: Romeo and Juliet (I'm opting for the choose-your-own-ending version being presented in a bar next week), Othello (I'm opting for an original pronunciation version in April), and Henry V (I have two options for that one that I can't reveal as one is not announced). That leaves Love's Labour's Lost, which, if I choose that one, several other preferred theaters come off the chart.

Ultimately, many of my final selections will come down to time and travel: when can I get where, where can I get when. Even my desire to get to the continental corners will have to contend with that reality.

Puzzles. At least they look good when they're done.

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January 30—A Shot in the Arm

It took two, big, burly corpsmen and my father to hold me down as the doctor gave me a penicillin shot when I was 7 years old. My distaste for needles hasn't abated since. Bravery for me was getting a vaccine during a hepatitis outbreak on the Air Force base in Alaska where my father was stationed when I was a young teen (one of my classmates had been stricken, so I weighed the odds—and gave in only to the base commander's orders for all families to get the shot at the base clinic).

I've never gotten a flu shot. I've also never had the flu. Heck, I average a cold only once every three years. But I've had three colds already since October, and there's been a particularly virulent strain of flu going around the D.C. area and down in Staunton, Virginia, where we were this past weekend. Today, when I was at a doctor's appointment for an unrelated matter, the nurse asked, "Have you had your flu shot?" "No," I mumbled, knowing I would have to explain myself and still get a lecture. "Would you like one today?" she asked.

My life flashed before my eyes: Not my past but my future, cramming as much as a dozen Shakespeare plays in a dozen locations into the next three months. "Yes," I heard myself mumble. Holy cow, I just agreed to get a shot! How's that for dedication? Honestly, I didn't feel a thing when she gave me the shot. Not that I'll volunteer for future needling, but 53 years of imagined terror seems kind of silly to me now.

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Richard II, American Shakespeare Center
Blackfriars Playhouse
, Staunton, Virginia, January 27

One year ago, Friday night, Staunton, Virginia, the actors converged on the Stonewall Jackson Hotel's lounge. They were celebrating two members in the company "completing the canon" (playing in every Shakespeare-written play over the course of their careers) with opening-night performance of Coriolanus that just concluded next door at the American Shakespeare Center's (ASC) Blackfriars Playhouse. My wife and I happened to be in the lounge when they arrived, and one of the actors sidled up to me and whispered in my ear: "Sarah Fallon is coming back next Ren Season to play Richard II." This for me was a Christmas-morning-Santa-booty moment. Then the actor whispered more: "And Josh Innerst is going to play Hamlet."

One year of excited anticipation culminated today in one day of incredible theater and exceptional Shakespeare. Fallon's Richard is everything I knew it would be, and the ensemble work is exquisitely nuanced. As for Hamlet, well, I'm a guy who spent his formative years of attending theater in England, where standing ovations are rarer than comets passing the earth. I normally don't stand until the second curtain call, and that only so I can see something other than backs (in America, not standing is rarer than comets). Tonight, I rocket out of my seat with hand-hammering applause. Floating out of the playhouse, I catch up with Joan Saxton, who lives in Sausalito, California, and has come to almost every ASC production here in Staunton over the past 12 years. She just shakes her head indicating she has no words to offer; her contented smile glazed on an expression of awe more than suffices. We all head over to the Stonewall Jackson for a formal reception unveiling ASC's 2018–2019 lineup of plays. But the buzz is all Hamlet: People strain to constrain themselves from saying this might be the best Hamlet ever staged.

This is not hyperbole; but now comes the part where you are inclined to tell me, "pshaw!" The actors staged this Hamlet, along with Richard II, by themselves in just two weeks.

The ASC is one week into its annual Actors' Renaissance Season. During the "Ren Season" the theater uses original production practices. Twelve actors with cue scripts (their parts plus a line or two before they speak) put on the play without any director or production team. The cast works out all the blocking and the look of the production in only about a week's worth of rehearsal time. By the end of the three-month season they will be doing a repertory of five plays. This, scholars believe, is how plays were produced in Shakespeare's time, a collaborative effort by the company. The result is textually pure productions. The actors simply don't have time to contemplate or argue about concepts or interpretations; they have to play what they read, and they have to listen to the other characters on the stage because they have to hear the cues when they land.

Key phrases here—"original production practice," "textually pure," "Blackfriars Playhouse" (a re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theater), "original staging conditions"—would incline the uninitiated to think this is "museum Shakespeare." It's not: it's closer to improvisational theater with the actors (on a mostly bare stage) interacting with an audience in the same light (no darkened theater) and in close proximity (patrons even sit on the stage itself). Shakespeare not only wrote for such conditions but, reportedly, more raucous audiences than today's. How he navigated such an environment with his plot and verse structures emerge during these Ren Season productions, some of the most dynamic live theater I've seen anywhere.

Richard II is 100 percent verse: Shakespeare even uses rhyming couplets for the comic scene of the Yorks on their knees competitively begging before King Henry IV (David Anthony Lewis). Fallon portrays Richard's crumbling state—his crumbing psychological state as much as his regal one—speaking some of Shakespeare's most lyrical poetry. Being king is all Richard has known, and he relies totally on divine right as anointed by God for his political standing. Watching Fallon's Richard discovering that he is as human as anybody else is devastating, no matter how petulant we might think him early in the play.

Fallon in black dress and sheered pattern stockings with red-sole heels sits in a lord's chair, a crown in her hand.
Sarah Fallon plays the title character of William Shakespeare's Richard II at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Michael Bailey, American Shakespeare Center.

Casting Fallon as Richard II is a no-brainer. I've admired this actress's work on this stage since 2004. She has portrayed Cleopatra exactly as Enobarbus describes her. Her Lady Macbeth was the truest portrayal of the role I've ever seen. She famously played all four iterations of Queen Margaret in Shakespeare's Henry VI tetralogy produced one part per year over four years, one of the few women, if not the only woman, to ever do so (a boy or young man would have played the part in the original productions). Her iconic pairings with René Thornton Jr. in several plays (from Tamora and Aaron in Titus Andronicus to Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing) includes Fallon as Cassius to Thornton's Brutus in Julius Caesar: I've never seen the tent scene argument so electric.

Fallon playing Richard II is not stunt casting. Cross-gender casting is common at ASC. Just as Fallon playing Cassius was all about chemistry with Brutus, to Jim Warren, ASC's artistic director through last year, Fallon is perfect for Richard because of her verse-speaking skills and her abilities in portraying regality and psychological disintegration—even at the same moment, as she does in the deposition scene at the center of Richard II. Critics often see Richard as an effeminate tragic hero, but Warren knew Fallon wouldn't play the part that way. I've seen Fallon effectively lead armies, torture dukes, go toe-to-toe with Richard III, beat up messengers, psychologically castrate Scotland's greatest warrior, and, in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, physically castrate a king, all while playing women; and I've seen her form a successful assassination plot while playing a man.

Here she's playing a king. Sure, Richard is spoiled, loves flattery, is inefficient in governance, and not politically astute. But he keeps a firm grip on his core ethic—divine right—and in the final scene he fends offs the four murderers, killing two of them before being fatally stabbed himself. That moral strength and physical danger runs through Fallon's performance from the start. She's scary good as Richard II.

For the review, click here.

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January 26—What Shakespeare Means
A busy two lane street down a hill and up another with a variety of old buildings on either side
Beverly Street, downtown Staunton's main drag. Below, the Blackfriars Playhouse, home of the American Shakespeare Center (see the closest intersection in the photo above? The Blackfriars is a half block to the right). Photos by Eric Minton.

It still feels early. We left the house just after 6 a.m., and after a 2 1/2-hour darkness-into-daylight drive over Interstate 66 and down I-81, we are now in Staunton, Virginia, (population of just under 25,000) finishing up breakfast at Rèunion Bakery & Espresso (ham and gruyere croissant, oh my goodness). We're downtown. Across the street is the Staunton Visitor Center on the ground floor of the city's parking garage. Beyond that sits the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world's only re-creation of William Shakespeare's indoor theater in London.

Julie Markowitz , executive director of the Staunton Downtown Development Association, is meeting me in this bakery to talk about Shakespeare: not the man, not the plays, not the industry, but Shakespeare, a term with a Staunton-specific definition. When she was in her 20s and living in Harrisonburg 30-minutes up the interstate from Staunton, Markowitz would hear people say, "Hey, Shakespeare is coming to the park tonight!" Shakespeare was a dozen or so people wearing black turtlenecks and pants and black Converse high-top sneakers performing plays for an audience lounging on blankets and drinking wine. More formally known as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, Shakespeare to Markowitz was "youthful, spontaneous, incredible fun energy."

In the early 1980s Markowitz lived for a couple of years in Staunton and doesn't have fond memories. Main Street was dying and an adjacent psychiatric hospital (the old, creepy generation of such institutions) was closing and the de-institutionalized residents were moving into subsidized housing downtown. Markowitz remembers being chased to her car every night after work. She returned in 1993, and though conditions had improved, she still describes it as dark times.

The Blackfriars Playhouse all in brick, a bay window beside and a peaked roof above the main entrance with a view of the street heading beyond to Mary Baldwin CollegeThen, in 2001, Shakespeare came to town.

In fact, it was the Shakespeare of Markowitz's past, the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express building a permanent home in Staunton, which opened in September 2001. The Blackfriars Playhouse is the perfect environment for the company, founded by Ralph Cohen, a professor of Shakespeare at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, and one of his students, Jim Warren, to stage plays using the theater conditions and staging practices Shakespeare's company would have used between 1590 and 1630. No longer wandering players (though a national touring troupe is still part of its operations) and with a growing education program, the company changed its name to the American Shakespeare Center (ASC).

Staunton already had a thriving arts community, says Markowitz, who became executive director of the Downtown Development Association in 2006: at the turn of this century the town featured several galleries and theater community groups, and church concerts were part of the social scene. Arts and entertainment is in the town's DNA. Staunton incorporated in 1801 and became a railroad center in the mid-1800s (even today it is at the intersection of Interstates 81 and 64). Warehouses and commercial businesses clustered around the depot; up the hill, the downtown district became the center for hotels, bars, theaters, and other venues of pleasure, arts, and entertainment, inspirational and carnal. Virginia is replete with Civil War battlefields; Staunton served as a rest-and-recreation center for troops, so the town escaped warfare.

Shakespeare, the man, would feel at home in such a community, then and now. But Shakespeare did much more here for Staunton, providing a steroid jolt not only to the arts community but also to the culture and commerce and to Mary Baldwin, a women's college sitting like an acropolis in the center of town. Respected chefs turned the town into one of the finest culinary enclaves on the Eastern Seaboard. Small businesses thrived. Next door to the Blackfriars a derelict hotel, the Stonewall Jackson, was remodeled and expanded as a conference center and designated a historic hotel.

When asked what the Blackfriars most brought to the town, Markowitz doesn't hesitate to answer. "Visitors," she says. Only 15 percent of the Blackfriars audience is local. The ASC has a growing national and international reputation for the quality and style of its productions, for its education programs, bringing in not only students to learn Shakespeare but teachers to learn how to teach Shakespeare, and for its year-round calendar of productions needing theatrical artists. Many of these artists end up settling in Staunton, captured by the combination of small-town atmosphere, a lively cultural vibe, and the surrounding wilderness beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.

This is all part of the definition of Shakespeare for Staunton. Nobody calls the entity the American Shakespeare Center or ASC or the Blackfriars or even the Playhouse. It is simply "Shakespeare," meaning the place, the product, its people, and their presence. Shakespeare is "a feeling," Makowitz says. "The word Shakespeare conjures up different things for different people. If you're in school and studying it might be work. If you're in our community and you don't quite understand it, it might mean those artsy people. If you're in my job and you see the impact of it, Shakespeare is the reason people gather. It represents quality, it represents intelligence infused with humor and a sensibility that everybody can understand, because that's just how [Shakespeare] wrote. He wrote for the common man. He wrote about situations that everybody encounters, and everybody can relate to it. And it's couched in this old-world way that a lot of people think is snooty, but it's really not. And I love the way the theater company presents it. It's so high energy, it's so much fun. And I think that it is authentic, so it's fresh."

She thinks back to the "youthful, spontaneous, incredible fun energy" that Shakespeare brought to her life 30-some years ago. "It's still there," she says of the company that provides a real-time conduit to the man. "They've managed to have a very sophisticated, big business and still maintain in their performances that youthful sort of innocent, lighthearted spirit."

That is Shakespeare in Staunton: it's a spirit.

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January 21—"It Is the Stars," Says Kent

A red 8 ball, with curly white W logo on the sideAt every opportunity I look for affirmation that this Canon Project is a good idea: feedback from theater folks and friends, my sons drawing on their own particular expertise to lend enthusiastic support, the timing given the significance of 2018 in America and my life. Then there are the omens. I've had so many mystical signs and portends that Shakespeare would blush to put it all in a play. My dad even appeared to me in a dream and said, "Eric, just do it," and then laid out a financial plan for the project.

Today I happened upon a "Magic 8 Ball" that we got as a give-away at a Washington Nationals baseball game (it's red instead of 8 ball answer window with "I foresee a home run"black and has the GEICO and Nationals "curly W" logos adjacent to the "8"). I couldn't resist. "Am I going to see all 38 plays in the Shakespeare Canon this year?" I asked the 8 ball. I pushed the button and turned it over to see the answer: "I foresee a home run."

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January 15—Warm Thoughts

We’re heading home, leaving the warmth of Miami (70 degrees Fahrenheit) toward the 25 degrees the DC area will be feeling tonight.

The warmth we’re leaving behind is not merely air temperature. The folks at Shakespeare Miami overwhelmed us with welcoming hospitality, and their hosts—the managers of the venues where Shakespeare Miami stages its plays, Jerry Kinsey at Pinecrest and Katrina Boler at The Barnacle Historic State Park—took time out of their busy schedules to show us around their parks and tell their stories. A highlight of the weekend was being treated to a private dinner backstage at Pinecrest Gardens. Shakespeare Miami board members Maria and Paul Eisenhart prepared a fantastic Cuban meal for us (including offering me the pork crackling—now that’s hospitality!). “They are the very best kind of board members to have,” Producing Artistic Director Colleen Stovall told me. She and her abiding husband, John Stovall (a faithful volunteer for the cause), joined us along with board members Steve and Cyndy Hill, Florida International University Professor Jamie Sutton, and Doug Wetzel, who plays Polonius in Hamlet.

Thank you, Shakespeare Miami, Pinecrest Gardens, and The Barnacle Historic State Park.

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January 14—The Barnacle

Ralph Munroe, who lived on New York's Staten Island, saw a sailboat drifting toward the rocks. An expert seaman himself (and a natural genius in design, including 56 sailboats), Munroe sailed out to help guide the boat and its owner, William Brickle, to safety. Munroe asked his unexpected guest where he was from. "Paradise," Brickle replied: Biscayne Bay. Munroe had to see it for himself. When he did, he made Miami his home.

His house, which Munroe built himself in 1891 (expanded with a second floor in 1908) and called The Barnacle because it is shaped like one, is the oldest house in Dade County still on its original site: 40 acres right on the bay and now surrounded by the condos, boutiques, and restaurants of Coconut Grove. Instead of giving in to salivating developers, the Munroe family turned the property over to the state in 1973, which now operates it as The Barnacle Historic State Park. One of South Florida's pioneers (yes, South Florida was a frontier even after the West was won), Munroe brought with him a taste for arts and culture. He hosted music concerts in his home, and his library included several volumes of William Shakespeare's works, some in languages other than English.

Katrina Boler, in dark gray sweater, leans on her elbow at a picnic table with The Barnacle house and lawn in the background and people walking on a path
Katrina Boler is park manager at The Barnacle Historic State Park, one of the venues for Shakespeare Miami. Photo by Eric Minton.

Listening to Park Manager Katrina Boler describe the family's and the site's history is to forge a first-name relationship with Ralph himself. Boler has degrees in history and literature, so she's a big Shakespeare fan. She had her own sailboat on the rocks moment when in 2010 she got a call from Colleen Stovall, whose Shakespeare Miami had just lost funding for one of the sites for its free Shakespeare productions. Boler got excited until Stovall told her she needed dates in January, The Barnacle's busiest season. "I looked at the calendar for the dates she gave me, and they were all miraculously not booked," Boler says. "It was serendipity." Miami Shakespeare brought that year's production of The Taming of the Shrew, featuring a high school rock band on stage, to The Barnacle. The company went to other sites in subsequent years but in 2014 returned to The Barnacle with The Tempest.

Talk about a perfect setting for The Tempest: the house (with a brick patio for a stage at the front entrance) faces down a lawn to Ralph's boathouse and the bay, glistening blue on this Sunday afternoon with sailboats gliding back and forth. Thick forest covers the 30-some acres between the house and downtown with a paved path winding through the trees (Ralph considered boats to be the only necessary means of transportation; he hated the railroad and had little use for automobiles). There's even a sailboat on the lawn next to a pavilion (the stage for rainy nights), but that boat doesn't belong there. It is a remnant of Hurricane Irma last September, deposited halfway up the lawn by the storm surge. The Barnacle, thanks to Ralph's barnacle design, has survived some vicious hurricanes, but the boathouse took serious damage from the passing boat.

The Barnacle has proved a perfect setting for all Shakespeare Miami productions, which have been playing here since 2014. The two organizations also partner on a Shakespeare Birthday event every April. All much to Boler's delight: "The Barnacle gained a lot when Shakespeare Miami lost their stage in 2010." Everything in South Florida is weather dependent—even report of rain can keep people home—but on nice evenings the plays can fill the 2 1/2-acre lawn with 700 to 900 people, Boler says. This number is all the more amazing when you consider that there is no parking on the property: patrons must find a spot somewhere in the busy downtown and walk that path to the house. In Shakespeare Miami's wake, other theater companies have played here, too, and something called a haunted ballet has also taken hold (I must return to see that someday).

It's all so perfectly Shakespearean, and Ralph, too. He encouraged a community spirit by inviting neighbors to his home for concerts and cultural events. Shakespeare Miami flips that notion around, considering "accessible Shakespeare" to mean not only free and relatable but taking shows to various communities. "It's something for all ages, something on their turf, in their neighborhood, and not a daunting thing like going to a theater," Boler says of Shakespeare Miami's weekend residencies in Coconut Grove. "It brings the community together. You get to sit and laugh together and go 'oh my goodness' together, which is especially important these days."

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Hamlet, Shakespeare Miami
Pinecrest Gardens, Pinecrest, Florida, January 13

Where once a large raptor swooped inches over my head from the rafters to the stage, I'm watching Hamlet set a mousetrap for Claudius in Shakespeare Miami's production of William Shakespeare's play—or, rather, a close proximity of his play.

Pinecrest Gardens aphimpheater, with white paneled ceiling to stage and glass from there, a two-story set, palm trees in background.

A path through banony trees to white-roofed amphitheater in backroung; twisted tree limbs forming a room to the right
Top, the amphitheater at Pinecrest Gardens in Miami, Florida, with Miami Shakespeare's portable set for Hamlet. Above, the Banyon trees and Patrick Dougherty's Stickwork sculpture (right) adjacent to the amphitheater. Photos by Eric Minton.

One of the longest tenures of my journalism career was covering the amusement industry, i.e., theme parks, water parks, zoos, and their combinations/variations. I was, for real, a professional roller coaster rider. One of the theme parks I visited was Parrot Jungle, both at its original site in a residential neighborhood south of Miami, and its current location near downtown Miami (in fact, the park flew me in for a private visit a few months before the new location opened to the public in 2003). What I didn't know until today was that the Village of Pinecrest, that residential neighborhood south of Miami, took over the old Parrot Jungle property and turned it into a community recreation park, maintaining the paths, ponds and flora of the theme park (but not the famous flamingos and its other fauna) and adding a new library and community center.

The entire site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, and Sarah and I stroll around the grounds and past the original entrance gate, bird cages, and snake houses. The 550-seat amphitheater where Parrot Jungle staged its bird shows has become a venue for concerts (its jazz series is particularly popular), ballet and modern dance, and theater, including Shakespeare Miami, now in its 13th season, which spends one weekend of its four-site tour of South Florida on the premises. It is at times a challenging venue for watching Shakespeare: the acoustics (using stage microphones) can be problematic, the peacocks and peahens congregating on the roof next to the stage can be distracting (though a couple seem intrigued enough to settle in to watch the show), and the constant coming and going of patrons can be annoying. Nevertheless, the palm tree backdrop with fronds sashaying in the breeze, the rough stone-wall-lined amphitheater itself, and a generally appreciative audience, many new to the play (gasps when Polonius falls dead through the curtain), are gift wrap to Shakespeare's verse.

Founding Producing Artistic Director Colleen Stovall, who directed and designed this Hamlet, has set the play in 1920s Denmark, a nation recovering from devastation in World War I and heading for capitulation to Nazi Germany in World War II. Ironically, the biggest chunk of the play Stovall excised to get down to a 2:40 run time (plus 15-minute intermission) was Fortinbras and the Norway threat. The '20s timeframe gives this Elsinore a Great Gatsby look, all three-piece suits, capes, and flappers, which has the effect of turning Claudius into an ultracapitalist. That, in turn, brings incredible depth to his not-able-to-pray scene.

Stovall's most significant tweak of the text is transforming Ophelia's mad scenes by defining the term mad not as insanity but fury. In the scenes themselves, this reimagining of Ophelia works textually, but in the big picture it also requires changing the manner and the reporting of her death (and that would require a spoiler alert). Stovall tells me she not only doesn't believe a woman would react the way Ophelia does, she also had never seen the mad scenes work effectively in films and other productions. Thus, Shalia Sakona portrays an Ophelia of the #MeToo era, dealing with harassment from both Claudius and, after their break-up, the seemingly mad Hamlet.

Stovall waited to stage Hamlet until she could land an actor capable of doing the title role, and her patience paid off with Seth Trucks. Hamlet has a lot to deal with, but this Hamlet is also contending with flu-like symptoms: fever, sore throat, general good-god-I-feel-awful malaise. His performance last night was uneven, but today, though reportedly suffering physically (I can confirm the report upon meeting him briefly after the show), I count him among the great Danes I've ever seen, forging through a world that keeps taking peculiarly bad turns while suicide constantly crowds his thoughts. This is the 22nd time I've seen a version of Hamlet on stage, and the first time Hamlet's Yorick speech goes beyond cliché to the psychological resonance that created the cliché visual in the first place.

I targeted this particular matinee performance of Hamlet because it's announced as a sensory friendly edition for audience members on the autism spectrum. Stovall describes the protocols ("We don't want to reduce the experience but let them know what to expect" via demonstrations from actors before the play) and shows me the safe room where patrons can go for a calming environment yet still watch the play on a monitor if they choose to. In the production itself, some of the shouts are toned down and so is the violence. No one signs in as requiring a sensory-friendly performance, however, so we get the regular show.

Selfishly, I'm glad, because, Oh. My. God. The Hamlet-Laertes duel in the play's climax is one of the best stage combat sequences I've ever seen (and I afterward have the pleasure of talking about it with Joey Costello, the fight director). The fencing itself is exquisite, the whole battle is imbued with the personalities of a feigning-madness Hamlet and a feigning-courteous Laertes (dynamically played by Lito Becerra), and when it gets intense, desperate fencing up and down and across the set is supplemented by effective punches. It lasts at least five minutes, seems like 30. Wish it were 90.

For the review, click here.

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January 12—Cornered

My Shakespeareances.com copy editor, Carol Kelly, questioned a phrase I used in my announcement of the Canon Project: "This endeavor will cast a wide geographical net, covering every region of the continent corner to corner.” "Or coast to coast?" she commented. She was worried I might sound like a flat-earther.

My phrasing was deliberate: I'm going to the corners of the continent in my quest to see the 38 plays in Shakespeare’s Canon at 38 different theaters. Fairbanks, Alaska, is in the works. So is San Diego. Hawaii is in the mix—if I can work it into the schedule, it's part of the continent; if not, it's an island chain in the middle of the Pacific. My northeast corner is undetermined, as my intended target's status is in flux, but I have a couple of fallbacks in the queue.

As for the southeast corner, we're on our way there now: Hamlet at Shakespeare Miami. We've visited Miami before (baseball trips), but this is our first visit to Shakespeare Miami, "Florida's professional Shakespeare company," says its slogan, "Saving the world … One iamb at a time." I love Shakespeare Miami's core values listed on its website (www.shakespearemiami.com): excellence, ensemble, courage, and respect for all. "Shakespeare Miami has a 'No Assholes Rule,'" says the explanation for the last.

The company offers free Shakespeare productions at different open-air venues each weekend this time of year in and around Miami as far north as Boca Raton, Florida. We will be seeing Hamlet at Pinecrest Gardens, a publicly owned outdoor recreation area with an amphitheater, the production’s venue this weekend. We're still en route—air traffic today has been hampered by fog-socked mid-Atlantic corridor—but our plans are to see the play tonight, and then tomorrow take in a sensory-friendly staging, which is the focus of this visit.

Colleen Stovall, Miami Shakespeare's producing artistic director, has coordinated an opportunity for us to meet with local Shakespeareans and historians who will give us specific insights into Miami's relationship with Shakespeare, which apparently dates to the community's founding.

Sometimes, the corner is a good place to be.

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Twelfth Night, Fiasco Theater
Classic Stage Company, New York, New York, January 6

Approaching New York City, by plane, by train, or, as now, by car, always thrills me. I love how, during the day as you're navigating a cat's cradle of roads while speed-reading highway signs, the skyscrapers suddenly sprout up from the horizon beyond the Jersey swamps. At night, New York emerges from the distance as a galaxy of lights, with the red rocket-topped Empire State Building piercing through the middle of it all. I love New York City. I love its vibrancy, its attitude, its pace, its people—salt-of-the-earth kind of people, brusque as they go about their business but courteous to the core.

CSC marque over a glass-fronted section of building, a man opening the blue front door with lobby full of people inside the windows, snow on the edges of the sidewalk, and poster of Twelfth Night to the left of the windows. At night
Classic Stage Company's entrance, 136 E 13th St., New York City, where Fiasco Theater staged William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Photo by Eric Minton.

New York is, of course, one of the world's capitals for theater. We come here a lot, but that's as much due to supply as quality. Broadway is famous, but we see theater as good or better in both talent and execution, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, in regional theater or "the provinces" (which I'm here defining as anywhere outside a nonmajor metropolitan center; in America, "the provinces" is generally defined as anywhere but New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; in New York it is defined as anywhere but New York). So, when we come to New York to see Shakespeare, it's usually at a theater (or even a space, like a parking lot) that is designated with one or more tags of Off before Broadway, or the production is a loaner from the world's other major capital for theater, London.

As inviting as we find this city, it is cold on this night: 15 degrees, with snow piled along the sidewalks and slush in the streets. Turn a corner and the temperature drops to well below zero as an arctic gust blasts your skin, even that covered in clothing. This is the day after the bomb cyclone hit the East Coast (meteorologists seem to come up with new names for "storm" every year), and even New Yorkers seem daunted by the bitter cold: the streets are relatively empty. We trudge our way to Classic Stage Theater on East 13th Street near Union Square and walk in to warmth: the lobby coffee shop is packed with patrons distributed evenly across four generations. The doors open to the 200-seat deep-thrust theater. Inside, all is brick walls, wood-board floor, and ropes under a barn ceiling's light grid. Rustic trunks, furniture, and a lobster trap occupy the center of the stage. At the back are various instruments, and a ship's wheel inside a fishnet attached to an upright piano.

Typical Fiasco Theater, a company of young actors who delve deep into Shakespeare's texts to create vibrant theater using as few as six cast members. This is the fifth production by Fiasco Theater we've seen: Measure for Measure (we saw at New York's New Victory Theater—Off-Broadway, of course), The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline (both of which we saw at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C.), and Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods at Washington's Kennedy Center. Their Cymbeline, featuring a multitasking trunk, remains one of my favorite productions of all time. For Twelfth Night, the company expands to a cast of 10, which, with David Samuel doubling as Antonio and Fabian, still requires textual massaging: Maria (Tina Chilip) gets additional duty in the play's last scene. As I anticipated, Fiasco's Twelfth Night was not only worth the four-hour drive to New York (back home again this morning), it was worth the frostbite. They not only stage a laughter-full play but create a community experience by interacting with the audience before and during the play. Feste, played by co-director Ben Steinfeld (co-founder of Fiasco along with Noah Brody and Jessie Austrian), is alone worth the effort.

Nevertheless, people wonder why I would see Twelfth Night, or any other Shakespeare play, 27 times? The answer is that I've seen 27 Twelfth Nights. My niece saw the movie Titanic a couple dozen times: the director was always James Cameron at every showing, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet never changed their interpretations of Jack and Rose. Who questions how many times people see Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Rocky Horror Picture Show? Last night I saw a Twelfth Night I've never seen before, thanks to the intelligence and insight of this company. And if I were to go to the same show tonight—the last show of the play's run at Classic Stage Company—it would be a different Twelfth Night because the cast will be interacting with a different audience. That's the thrill and the art of live theater.

One scene in particular sets this production apart from all other Twelfth Nights, even though the way Fiasco does it seems the obvious way to stage the moment. It comes in the first meeting between Olivia (Austrian) and Viola (Emily Young) disguised as Cesario representing Duke Orsino (Brody) as a love embassy. Olivia asks how Cesario/Viola would woo in her "master's flame." "Make me a willow cabin at your gate," Viola starts in one of the play's most famous passages. As Young speaks the speech with rhythmic resonance, she crosses to Austrian and grabs her shoulders, staring deeply into her eyes as she halloos Olivia's name to the reverberate hills. Viola, trying to win Olivia's heart for her master, is all in (and as a woman, she knows better than a male messenger what works). Austrian's Olivia is completely blown away: "You might do much," she replies in wonder. And in love. Fixing the physical to the poetical shows us that exact moment's overwhelming emotional intensity that Olivia can never shake off.

And neither will I.

For the review, click here.

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January 5—New York Bound

We're driving up the Jersey Turnpike. This used to be home for me. My father was a U.S. Air Force chaplain, and he was stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in central New Jersey during my high school years. My childhood finished up here.

One among the many times I've traversed this highway was on a bus. The Northern Burlington County Regional High School Drama Club was taking a field trip to the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, to see a production of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. My Shakespeareances started here.

I was not a member of the Drama Club—I had already launched my journalism career as editor of the high school newspaper and covering sports for the Bordentown Register-News. I was on this trip because my best friend, Mike Ferguson, was the only guy going, and he wanted a bit of brotherhood for the road. So I went. I hated reading Julius Caesar in sophomore English, my only previous encounter with Shakespeare, and I had no knowledge of Twelfth Night; but hanging with Mike and a couple dozen girls seemed like a nice way to spend a Saturday. However, it was not Mike nor Sharon (a girl on the trip I would subsequently fall madly in love with) and not even Shakespeare that turned this into an extraordinary day.

I didn't know it at the time we were heading up the Jersey Turnpike, but at the other end of the bus trip was Herman Munster. Fred Gwynne was playing Sir Toby Belch. I was a huge Munsters fan, and to see Herman right there, in person, and being more genially funny than he was on the TV show was a blow-away moment for this 16-year-old. "These clothes are good enough to drink in—and so be these boots, too" he said, pulling yet another hidden flask out of his boot as Maria stalked him around the stage intercepting his other drinking vessels in the play's third scene.

That was my first live production of a Shakespeare play. I've seen 493 since including every play in the canon (the 36 First Folio plays plus Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen). Now I'm setting out to see all of those 38 plays in 38 different theaters across America in this single year, 2018. Poetic justice is served by a production of Twelfth Night leading off my campaign, but that was not intentional. This Canon Project is built around opportunity more than sentimentalism, piecing together a puzzle of what I can see when and where and how by whom. Even as I start this journey I lack assurance that five of the plays will be staged, though many theaters have yet to announce their summer or fall seasons. Henry VIII is rarely done, the two Henry Part Twos have empty lines on my matrix as does another obscure piece, Cymbeline. The surprising absence in announced playbills is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a play frequently staged the past few years. Perhaps it has ridden out its cyclic wave of popularity as King John and Love Labour's Lost ride in on their waves. Or perhaps theaters are avoiding Two Gents, a comedy with stalking and rape as plot points, due to the omnipresent social context of #MeToo and sexual harassment.

That, however, is the exact kind of context, specific to 2018 (as opposed to, say, 1600, the midpoint of Shakespeare's writing and first staging these plays), that this journey intends to engage through Shakespeare's plays. His works also titillate personal relevancy, pertinent especially at this particular stage of my life: I turn 60 this year; I'm entering Jacques' sixth age of man's mortality, shifting "into the lean and slippered pantaloon." After all, here I am, reflecting on my first Twelfth Night 44 years ago which set me on the way to where I am today, heading up the Jersey Turnpike to see Twelfth Night again—and for the 27th time.

But sentiment of another kind has made this Twelfth Night my first pick for this yearlong excursion through Shakespeare's plays. This time I know what's at the other end of the road: Fiasco.

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Shakespeareances Announces Canon Project

January 4, 2018—Shakespeareances.com is embarking on a venture to see all 38 plays in William Shakespeare's canon in 2018, each in a different theater across the United States and Canada. Called the Canon Project, the effort will be chronicled in journal form here on Shakespeareances.com and result in a book profiling the 38 theaters, their communities' interactions with Shakespeare, and my own relationship with each play (the number of plays and theaters will increase with stagings of Shakespeare's poetry or apocryphal plays).

This endeavor will cast a wide geographical net, covering every region of the continent corner to corner and in a variety of locales, from metropolitan centers to small towns. It will cover the spectrum of theaters, from internationally famous festivals to community theaters. It will feature a breadth of presentation styles, from staged readings to full-scale shows, from long-running productions to one-day-only presentations, from text-centric stagings to conceptual interpretations. Along the way, I will look through the eyes of audiences, actors, and impresarios in the communities where Shakespeare lives. I'll turn the view inward, too, reflecting on how Shakespeare, in word and action, connects with my own life experiences and particular human condition as I turn 60 during the year.

The initial outings in January demonstrate that breadth of selection criteria: Fiasco's 10-person-cast production of Twelfth Night at Classic Stage Company in New York City (a fitting start, as Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare stage production I ever saw, 43 years and 493 plays ago); Miami Shakespeare's "sensory friendly" presentation of Hamlet in a botanical Garden; and American Shakespeare Center's original-production-practices staging of Richard II, featuring a woman in the title role, at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.

The rest of the calendar and travel schedule has yet to be determined, as several of the 217 theaters with links on Shakespeareances.com have not announced their summer or fall schedules. The traditional canon includes the 36 plays in the First Folio plus Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Thus far, all but five titles have been scheduled for production somewhere in Canada and the United States in 2018, along with one of Shakespeare's apocryphal works, in which he has been credited as a writer or associated with the play's composition.

Not only have I already "completed the canon," I've seen every play at least twice. The Canon Project is not merely a stunt to experience the complete works of Shakespeare in a single year; it's about interacting with Shakespeare—covering the breadth of his career—at a specific point in time and place of my life. With the potential close to fruition of every play being produced somewhere in North America, 2018 further emerges as an ideal year from the perspectives of social, political, and personal contexts. At each stop I will see the plays (and review them on Shakespeareances.com), interview the company's principals, cast members, and audiences, as well as community leaders, and explore the theater itself and its geographical setting. In addition to profiling Shakespeare in American communities, the journey will serve as a travelogue for those who wish to follow.

Part of the adventure will be working out the logistics of experiencing every play, each in a different forum in just 12 months, while facing the possibility that an obscure play or two might not make it to a stage in full production during that time. My matrix, with cross-references of various criteria I'm using for selecting productions in order to represent all regions, theater types, and staging styles, is daunting.

The adventure kicks off Friday, January 6, with Fiasco's Twelfth Night in New York. The journal, with timeline, will appear at http://www.shakespeareances.com/ShakespeareCanon.html. I also will be posting updates on social media outlets using the hashtags #ShakespeareCanon #38Plays38Theaters.

First Journal Entry