A Shakespearean Reach
On our way home after seeing a play—after we've allowed the intensity of the experience (excited or painful) to run its initial emotional and intellectual course—I ask my wife, Sarah, "So what did you think?" When I popped the question after seeing a new staging of Mike Bartlett's King Charles III at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) produced in association with San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and Seattle Repertory Theatre, Sarah went on to describe a different play from the one I saw—though we were sitting right next to each other in the theater, were both awake for the entire play, and both enjoyed it. Sarah, who could be labeled a "Royals watcher" from her infatuation with English monarchy past and present, saw a play about the members of the royal family projected into a future that begins with Queen Elizabeth's passing and Charles's ascending the throne. What I saw was a Shakespeare history play.
A Man; Take Him for All in All
This is the great conundrum of Coriolanus. Is the title character a hero or a villain? What is fact in the play, and what is "alternative fact?" Shakespeare, if not being obtuse, is at least presenting both the character and Roman society and its fickle population and manipulative politicians with dispassionate objectivity. In our age, Coriolanus tends to be antiheroic: There's a reason this play is showing up on an inordinate number of theater marquees this year (along with Richard III, Julius Caesar, and Measure for Measure). But René Thornton Jr. playing the part for the American Shakespeare Center's production at the Blackfriars Playhouse is not an antihero. He is engaging, funny, inspiring, endearing even. Thornton's performance is refreshing and disconcerting because I actually like this guy though it's clear in both the things he says and the way he behaves that he will pursue an authoritative course of rule and widen the economic gap between the patricians and the plebeians. But so what? Those plebeians certainly come off as a bunch of wusses.
Master of a Full Poor Cell
Women in prison. It served as a metaphor for Rome in Phyllida Lloyd's staging of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and continued as a thematically resonant setting for her version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. With The Tempest, however, metaphor has been turned inside out as the play serves to conclude what turns out to be the story of a single prisoner told through Shakespeare's canon. Taken as a whole, the series demonstrates Shakespeare’s redemptive power while showcasing the incredible, multilayered acting talents of Harriet Walter along with those of her fellow actresses. Donmar Warehouse’s production of The Tempest, which ran in London last fall and is now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, is the last installment of Lloyd’s "Shakespeare Trilogy" with Walter as Brutus, Henry IV, and, now, Prospero, though—unbeknownst to the audience—she has been Hanna all along.
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Henry IV: Higher Crime
Phyllida Lloyd returns to the women's prison setting for the second installment of her Shakespeare trilogy, Henry IV (combining the two parts into one). She uses many of the same cast members, most notably Harriet Walter, who played Brutus in Caesar, playing the title character in Henry. However, much of what made Lloyd's Julius Caesar so intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically scintillating is missing in her Henry IV. The prison setting only serves this play in an allegorical context rather than in a social context as the Caesar production did so brilliantly. [Catch up with mustard, working through our backlog of reviews of the past year, revisitting these productions with benefit of hindsight and experience. For the complete review, click here]
In The World of Refugees
“As You Like It is a call to action,” Director Gaye Talor Upchurch writes in her program notes for her Folger Theatre production of the play, an introductory sentence that seems to be prophetic given the coincidental timing of this production against the backdrop of real-life drama being staged down the street in Washington, D.C. However, Upchurch is thinking in general terms. Her goal is that we, the audience, will join in “this celebration of both the ridiculous and the sublime nature of love.” A juxtaposition of sublime and ridiculous may be her starting point in staging this play, but what is sublime and what is ridiculous easily get twisted in translation. Thus we get an As You Like It which, by the intermission, is about to sink under heavy-handed theatricality and restrained acting but suddenly gets buoyed by individual performances and an audience-engaging spirit that send the play sailing to a happy ending, Hyman and all.
The Perspectives of Just Deserts
This is a Merchant of Venice that illustrates how Shylock is both a victim and a product of racism. This is a Merchant of Venice that depicts Antonio as the epitome of Christianity—and I mean that as complimentary to him. This is an American Shakespeare Center (ASC) Actors' Renaissance Season production (actors with no directors or production team mounting a play with a week's rehearsal) of William Shakespeare's play that lacks cohesiveness as some portrayals end up wandering in the wilderness, but a couple of bit parts rise to the topmost elevations of great Blackfriars Playhouse moments.
A Perfect Rom–Imperfect Com
Tears? Are my tear ducts really stinging as I watch William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing? It’s not from laughing so hard. It’s not from cringing too much (though I did a lot of cringing before this moment). These tears are the romantic kind—OK, the chick-flick kind—the result of a perfect consummation of Shakespeare’s script, from-the-heart acting, and fluid pacing under the direction of Abigail Isaac Fine. Fine teams sublimely with Shakespeare in such sterling moments in this NextStop Theatre Company's 1960s South Beach–set production; too often, however, she doesn’t trust the Bard, and though she’s given the tools for a truly superlative Much Ado About Nothing, the production stumbles as much as it soars.
This Point in Time
[Catch up with mustard, working through our backlog of reviews of the past year, revisitting these productions with benefit of hindsight and experience.]
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's production of Richard III last fall (which we attended three days before Election Day) was not specifically political in nature—its setting was a modern upscale gangland culture—but it was hard to not hear and see a Trump at work in Richard, deliciously played by Derek Wilson. Nevertheless, the more fascinating character in this production was Sir William Catesby (Sheffield Chastain): fascinating in how and why the character is constructed the way he is and how he reflects in more people—and more dangerously—than does a Richard III.
The Birth of a Man
I was in the fourth grade. By virtue of math, I know I was 9 years old, almost a month from my 10th birthday. My life’s timeline is a locale line because my dad was an Air Force chaplain and we moved every 2 1/2 years; thus, it’s the place that dates this story: a small ranch house in the officer’s housing area on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. It must have been early evening, probably before dinner. In fact, I might have been wondering when we would be eating as I came out of my room and walked down the hallway to the living room to find my distraught parents watching the television. Mom was crying; Dad was pained. “What happened?” I asked. “Martin Luther King was shot,” my mom said. I’m pretty sure, being that I was 9, my next question would have been: “Was he killed?” He was. Then came the key question: “Who is Martin Luther King?” The rest of my recollection of that night, as significant as the events would be for the rest of my life, is murky.
One That Hath Always Loved the People
I could write my entire review of the Red Bull Theater's production of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus on Patrick Page playing Menenius as a Dixie politician. Not only was this the highlight of this intimate, bare-stage but overly busy production at the Barrow Street Theatre (though Page was not alone in giving a sterling performance), his portrayal drew out the many shades of this fascinating character who is the antithesis to the bull-in-a-china-shop Martius (played here by Dion Johnstone) and, thus, foil as a political archetype. Naturally, we can apply such political archetypes to today’s all-too-real political stages across the globe. However, the gorgeous conundrum of Coriolanus is that though this Jacobean play about the early days of the Rome Republic can be easily updated to modern issues, it doesn’t automatically mean we can apply Shakespeare’s text as a barometer of right or wrong, good or evil, or even success or failure in government.For the complete review, click here.
The Truth in the Matter
Some William Shakespeare plays are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is in that last camp. Long the play I most maligned among Shakespeare’s solo works, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been moving steadily up the charts in my estimation, production by production. Now comes the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) Hungry Hearts Tour version, and even if Two Gents is not a Top 10 Shakespeare play, this production makes it seem so. It does so by being pure and simple under a director, Jemma Alix Levy, who recalls this play, the first Shakespeare she ever saw, through the eyes of a 7-year-old.
There’s a First Time for Everything
What resonance reverberates in Mercutio’s famous shout upon receiving Tybalt’s fatal sword thrust: “A plague o’both the houses!" That's because this Mercutio in the American Shakespeare Center's Hungry Hearts Tour production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is unlike any I've seen before, not because of how well he's played (though Cordell Cole plays him superbly) nor because he's presented outlandishly (he's not). Simply put, Mercutio is a welcome guest at Capulet's party, and in this Benjamin Curns–helmed production we see how much Mercutio’s social status alters the dynamics of what comes after. This is one of several significant examples of Curns’ thorough scrutiny of Shakespeare’s script, finding not-so-hidden-but-too-often-overlooked treasures and exploring their consequences through the finely honed performances of his talented cast. For the complete review, click here.
A Prosperous Year, Despite Being So Rotten
2016 was a bummer—except for theater in general and Shakespeare in particular. It was the year of Verona, though Shakespeare proved his relevance to 2016 with many of his plays, even without heavy adaptation or cuts. Meanwhile, a new adaptation of 1984 revealed that George Orwell was more accurately prophetic than we had realized (or wanted to believe). For pure entertainment, we saw big-hit wonders from both Bedlam and Fiasco, and one of our favorite playhouses, the Blackfriars, attained new heights in consistent excellence across three different companies of actors over the calendar year. Our own theater calendar started in January with a fun take on murder, mayhem, and death in Shakespeare. It ended this month with a spiritually uplifting medieval mystery play. Throughout the year our ongoing theatrical experiences helped us cope with something of a rotten year.
The Spirit of Christmas Past
Where else, other than a children's Christmas pageant, do you get off-kilter musical performances inspiring great applause, shepherds behaving badly, and a nativity scene with bowing sheep? A medieval mystery play, of course: specifically The Second Shepherds' Play, which the Folger Consort, the Folger Shakespeare Library's early music ensemble-in- residence, is staging with some of the Washington, D.C., theater scene's best actors. This was my first experience with a medieval mystery play, not only a delight intellectually but also, thanks to its blending the Christmas story with a tale of grifter shepherds and interlacing ancient seasonal carols, spiritually uplifting and a real tickler of a show.
Truth in a Commedia Rendering of Shylock
How you react to the notion of a commedia dell’arte production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice depends on your attitude toward this, Shakespeare’s most controversial play and its centerpiece Jewish character, Shylock. However, this production by Faction of Fools meets none of those expectations, no matter your feelings about the play. Rather, it will suprise the play's naysayers and surpass any and all anticipation of the play's fans. This production reaches the realm of revelation, elevating Shakespeare’s text into something both pure and majestic, despite its simple staging and silly slapstick elements. I did not expect to see Shakespeare’s hand so clearly in the composition of this play through the commedia form; and while I expected great performances and have much respect for Matthew Pauli, who plays Shylock, I did not expect such moving character portrayals, let alone one of the most fully fleshed Shylocks I've ever encountered, one that makes you feel for the man rather than the Jew.
First Folio's Blockbuster Tour Comes Home
This was a rarity: a rare book going on tour. How do you make a book compelling? Would anybody but bibliophiles care? These were real questions the Folger Library and its partner, the Cincinnati Museum Center, asked themselves when they started planning a tour of First Folios to every state and territory this year. However, the First Folio is not just any rare book; it is an inherently compelling book. It garnered celebrity status wherever it went on its 71,000-mile journey, seen by a half million people. And now, the 18 First Folios that made that trek have come home to roost for one last exhibit: an exhibit about the touring exhibit and the largest-ever public display of First Folios.For the complete story, click here.
All Decked Out and Dekker, Too
Simon Eyre started sounding vaguely familiar. He is a shoemaker who becomes the Lord Mayor of London in Thomas Dekker's play The Shoemaker's Holiday. The character is based on a historical figure (not a shoemaker but a clothes distributor) of the early 15th century, and as he describes in vivid imaginary detail how he will be received by the king in a forthcoming meeting, I realized where I'd seen his kind before: in William Shakespeare's Henry IV. With Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff already a huge hit in London, it's only natural that Dekker would try to ride Shakespeare's creative coattails by presenting his own fat influence peddler, even tapping into a legendary gregarious local figure—as Shakespeare did with Falstaff (nee, Sir John Oldcastle)—and make him the star of his new comedy about London city life, The Shoemaker's Holiday, first staged in 1599. Hollywood does this kind of thing all the time. This specific moment is part of the larger picture of why the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is venturing into staging works by Shakespeare's contemporaries: it goes beyond revealing the influences on the Bard to unveiling the greater context of Shakespeare's profession at the time he practiced it.
To Whom Should I Complain?
Rape is a key plot point in what might be the first play William Shakespeare penned. Rape is a key plot point in what probably was his last play. Across his canon, Shakespeare addresses sexual violence and abuse, even in one play conjoining that issue with the sphere of politics. Watching the firestorm sparked by revelation of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” moment, I, naturally, turned to Shakespeare for his opinion. Shakespeare might be over 400 years old, but he still is keenly tied into the zeitgeist and eerily prescient of current events. And he does have some insightful and incisive things to say about sexual assault.
Gender Politics in Staging Shakespeare
The Bardroom debuts with a conversation prompted by an article in the Wall Street Journal claiming that identity politics have overtaken the arts. The article singled out Emma Rice of the Shakespeare's Globe in London establishing a standard of 50-50 gender casting for all plays in that theater. A Shakespeareances.com reader wanted my take on such an edict and the reassignment of gender for roles in Shakespeare's plays. For her question, my response, and contributions from other readers, click here.
[New contribution November 1.]