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2012 In Review

Indelible memories were planted the first weeks of the year and grew stronger as the months passed, even as newly planted memories crowded in. 2012 was a great year for Shakespeareances. A great, great year.

We took in 40 Shakespeare stage productions out of a total of 60 stage plays this year; saw one cinematic release and eight DVDs; and listened to two radio plays. So many highlights, dozens even—from my own son's New York debut to checking off The Rape of Lucrece from my to-see list—but what follows are our rankings of the topmost Shakespeare and theatrical moments of 2012.

Great Shakespeareances happen far from public stages, too, and this year, many of my great Shakespeareances were intimately personal: like rediscovering King John while sipping oolong from a Minton china teacup, or putting up our Shakespeare-themed Christmas trees, or watching that Ooooh! that's good! expression cross Sarah's face when I nailed the cock-a-leekie soup recipe in my Cymbeline meal.

In fact, the Commentaries in the Dialogues section of took a markedly personal path this past year. I had planned my essays to be observations of Shakespeare's relevance in today's society rather than reflections on my own personal experience. But then I came face to face with my own Falstaff; Sarah and I celebrated 20 years of marriage; my son's Shakespearean lifelong journey entered a new stage; and I realized my father is one King Lear among many.

Already, 2013 is shaping up to be another year of great Shakespeareances: Our travels will take us from Florida to upper New York and to the Midwest; we are reinvigorating our regional reach; and several promising films are due for release this coming year. Photographer Dawn Hanna and I are starting to work on the Shakespearecure cookbook, and I'll be making infrastructure improvements to the website and expanding its reach. That's all to come.

For now, here's a look back at the highlights of a great, great Shakespearean 2012.

Top 10 Shakespeareances of 2012

  1. Benjamin Curns as Richard III, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. We saw four productions of Richard III this year, bringing my personal total to 10. I've seen Antony Sher's famous crutches, Ian Benjamin Curns in uniform as Richard IIIMcKellen's famous glove, and, this year, Kevin Spacey's notorious mugging. But I had never seen Richard's real soul before—the “tragic hero” as Shakespeare intended him—until Ben Curns completed his portrayal of the character in the War of the Roses tetralogy. What Curns accomplished was a mind-searing performance from first line to last, the work of a devoted Shakespearean who didn't just study the hunchbacked villain, he grew up as Richard over the previoustwo years in Henry VI Parts Two and Three. If I could be allowed a 1-A ranking it would be “a day in the life of Ben Curns,” because we saw his Richard after his matinee performance as an unremittingly funny and physically frantic Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. It's also worth noting that this was in January; 12 months later, the memory of these performances is fresher than anything I've seen since.

  2. The Comedy of Errors and Richard III, Hudson Warehouse, Soldiers and Sailors Monument, New York, N.Y. My son, Jonathan, made his New York Shakespeare debut in June in The Comedy of Errors, playing the police officer in a comic turn that Rivers, with back to Richard, the two looking warily at each otheralmost stole the show (and did so for at least one young member of the audience). In August, Jonathan took on the part of Rivers in Richard III and elevated the secondary character to a key player in the intrigue surrounding Edward IV's court. I had never seen Jonathan act on stage before this year. He grew up with his mother in Anchorage, Alaska, where he honed his craft in school; in the summers and holidays when he was with me we took him along with us to theaters. Finally getting to see him perform—and seeing that he is pretty darn good (on top of discovering the solid company that is the Hudson Warehouse)—is an ongoing moment to treasure. (Jonathan also played a deep-souled but funny Aguecheek in the Mad and Merry Theatre Company's Twelfth Night this winter.)

  3. Twelfth Night, New York Classical Theatre, Central Park, New York, N.Y. My review of this production—with superior performances by the entire cast ingeniously using the Central Park landscape as players and audience moved from Malvolio lounges on a rock wearing a classic bathing suit, with yellow stockings and garter, underneath his stewards coat, and he still has his chain onlocation to location—captures its magic (or attempts to, anyway). Let me put its impact in a temporal perspective. We saw this on a Saturday night. The night before, we had seen my son's New York Shakespeare debut in a fine production of The Comedy of Errors (number two on this list) and visited with my son and the cast at a bar. Saturday afternoon we accepted the invitation of the Shakespeare Forum to watch their rehearsal of Hamlet, which had some brilliant moments. It was after these highlights of a lifetime that we saw this Twelfth Night. Yet, for weeks after, it was the many moments of this Twelfth Night that kept showing up on the auto-replay of my memory. This was truly an Oh wow! Shakespeareance.

  4. A Commedia Romeo and Juliet, Faction of Fools Theatre Company, Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Washington, D.C. Not just the funniest Romeo and Juliet imaginable, this Commedia dell'Arte rendering of Shakespeare's popular tragedy Faction of Fools troupe perform the Queen Mab speechoffered up many insights into the play itself. Shakespeare may have been more influenced by the Italian theatrical tradition than scholars realize. Several scenes in this play make more sense when played for laughs, especially the fake Juliet death scene, which in Faction of Fools' hands was an all-time howler. This troupe of five actors, wearing masks for various roles, effectively balanced Commedia conventions with the Shakespearean verse and astutely managed the abrupt turns from slapstick to true tragedy, all while maintaining an exuberant relationship with the audience as they improvisationally navigated through opening night set failures and other miscues.

  5. Coriolanus, the movie starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes. Shakespeare's most complex (and confusing) tragedy, set in the early days of the Rome republic, gets an Coriolanus and Cominius in uniform with senators walking through corridorupdated setting and telling in Fiennes' movie. Using story-telling techniques combining CNN, CSI, and YouTube along with images of street demonstrations, riots, and urban warfare, Fiennes gives us a Coriolanus befitting our times, illustrating how the titular hero can fall from national hero to banishment in a matter of minutes on the whims of a fickle populous easily swayed by political spin-masters. Still, Fiennes kept the mama's boy element of Coriolanus' tragedy intact, and though he significantly cut the text, it is all pure Shakespeare, even in the mouths of TV–talking-head pundits. Spoken by the likes of Fiennes and Brian Cox, the verse lifts what could have been a gimmickry telling of Coriolanus into a five-star Shakespearean movie.

  6. Allison Glenzer as Speed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. Allison Glenzer tends to get typecast in ASC productions, and one of those typecasts is as the comic male servant. But she flourished in a profound performance as Amelia in Othello a couple of years ago and showcased a wide range of abilities in a wide range of roles throughout last year, so we figured it's time to put Speed-like roles behind her. Thank goodness she got typecast again. In a contemporary conversational reading of the part, Glenzer made Speed funny for the good jokes he tells, funny for the chutzpah with which he tells bad or dated jokes, and funny just for being the guy he is. Through expert inflection and brilliant timing with the lines, Glenzer not only made Speed totally accessible to modern audiences from beginning to end, she turned in a performance that puts her with names such as Dench, McClellen, Hopkins, Sher, Jacobi, and Curns among great Shakespearean portrayals.

  7. Elizabeth Jernigan as Portia, Maryland Shakespeare Festival's Bare Bard Repertory, All-Saints Episcopal Church, Frederick, Md. Which Portia? Both Portias. On a Saturday night, Jernigan injected a jolt of insight and energy into an otherwise pedestrian production of Julius Caesar, finding a firebrand in the lines of Brutus' wife, who puts him on the spot for his lack of respect for this woman who clearly deserved respect. The next afternoon, Jernigan anchored an all-around well-acted production of The Merchant of Venice, giving us a Portia who was both giddy in romance and wise in love, snobbish behind her suitors' backs but ever graceful to their faces, reflectively grave in the courtroom scene, deceptively petulant in the ring scene, and always charming. As an actress, she demonstrated how Shakespeare's verse provides all a player needs to build multidimensional people in even the scantest scenes and, in the Bare Bard Repertory tradition, she played off the audience with astute improvisation. She was an extraordinary Portia. Twice.

  8. Andrus Nichols as Gertrude in Hamlet, The Shakespeare Forum, Theater for the New City, New York, N.Y. I've always considered Gertrude to be one of Shakespeare's weakest female characters—until I saw Andrus Nichols play her in this modern-dress production, the first by The Shakespeare Forum. Director Sybille Bruun Moss concentrated on the play's interpersonal relationships, and Nichols revealed Gertrude to be a woman who misses her first husband but yet loves her second husband and, more than anything else, dotes on her son. When that son abuses her, kills her friend, and then sees his father's ghost in the closet scene, Nichols' Gertrude found wellsprings of anger, fear, pain, confusion, and sorrow in a heart-wrenching performance.

  9. The Winter's Tale, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. A Hermione in Gree-like gown posing as the statue, on a pedestal with a candelabra next to herHermione to live for in Stephanie Holladay Earl. A succinct portrait of tyranny in Eugene Douglas as Leontes. An actor born to play Autolycus in Jake Mahler. An experienced Mamillius in Denice Mahler, who also played Perdita. Most of all, though, deft handling by the director, Jim Warren, who put his full faith in Shakespeare's seemingly abrupt shifts in this play, from festive to despotic, from heartache to hilarity, from tragedy to comedy and both in one. This play is really ingeniously written, and Warren and company revealed that fact.

  10. The Rape of Lucrece, Taffety Punk, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C. This comes in so high because of the rarity of getting to see this narrative poem Tarquin in T-shirt and Lucrece in tanktop, he talking, she scaredperformed. But aside from that, the production was a worthwhile experience in and of itself. A three-piece rock combo doubling as characters, along with two actors (Narrator and Tarquin) and a dancer, present an aural, visual, and, most poignantly of all, emotional reading of the piece. It's Shakespeare channeled through Ginsberg and The Who. Special kudos to Kimberly Gilbert playing a heart-rending Lucrece and a thumping bass: at the same time, even.

Worth a special mention here is Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, Ore., which I described in my review as "the damnedest thing I ever did see." We could argue which list this belongs in, because, The three leads hold up daggers (paring knife for Cinderella)while it doesn't crack the Top Ten here, it would rank near the top of the non-Shakespeare list. However, I classify it as a Shakespeare play on this website, and we saw it specifically because of the Macbeth element (it probably would not have made our itinerary if it was named Medea/Hedda Gabler/Cinderella or some such non-Shakespeare formula). So, while this blending of three classic plays—nay, three classic theatrical forms—was a singular theatrical experience, it was merely good Shakespeare, with a keen Macbeth turned in by Jeffrey King and a solid Lady Macbeth in Christopher Liam Moore. The Weird Sisters and Banquo also provided memorable performances, but more for their roles in Cinderella than in Macbeth.

With that, we turn to…

The Top 5 Non-Shakespearean Theatrical Moments of 2012

  1. All the Way, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, Ore. "Perfect" is how Sarah described this production, and I'm in full agreement. Johnson and King at a coffee table in the Oval Office, meeting over tea.Great subject matter—LBJ's passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and integrating the Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention—and uniquely iconic figures of American history cleverly packaged in a tight script by Robert Schenkkan and energetically directed by Bill Rauch. The superb ensemble of 15 actors shifting in and out of 37 roles is led by Jack Willis as Johnson and Kenajuan Bentley as Martin Luther King Jr. This may have been a talk-heavy political history, but it played as exciting as a Bourne film. Funny, profane, profound, tense (even if we did know the outcomes), this was Shakespearean in scope, Shakespearean in quality.

  2. Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C. As a depiction of war, this production is as honest as they come, recounting Scottish solders with the red plumes in their berets kneel with rifles poised and what looks like car headlights shining from the backthe experiences of an elite Scottish regiment in Iraq. It is funny, it is scary, it is tragic, it is moving, especially its nondialogue scenes of the soldiers reading letters from home and the finale of the disintegrating formation. But the real drama takes place in the psychological space between what we see on stage and what we feel in our own selves. The realities of those two realms never quite connect, which is the theme—and lesson—brilliantly explored in this gut-punching production.

  3. The Conference of the Birds, The Folger, Washington, D.C. The story, based on a 12th century Sufi poem, tells of the world's birds The whole cast, in a flying wedge, eyes upraisedtakinga journey to see their supreme king beyond the mountains, a parable containing more parables and involving deep mysticism. However, the play itself is as much a presentation of the actors playing the birds taking their own mystical journey and sharing that journey with us. The play works as an interesting and sometimes humorous road trip taken by the birds; the play also works as a profound meditation on our own experiences and ethical bearings. This isn't just live theater—it's living theater, a shared experience in the moment among actors, audiences, and allegorical birds.

  4. The Servant of Two Masters, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C. About 10minutes into this production, the time it takes to mentally Il Dottore in black Jacobean outfit with a huge ruff collar, Pantalone in red pajamas and yellow shows, both wearing commedia dell'arte masks, with miniature city scapes and a cloudy sky backdrop/].adjust to its Commedia dell'Arte conventions, one of the characters calls Jesse J.Perez's Florindo “Puss in Boots.” Suddenly, it all made sense: We were watching a live cartoon, Puss in Boots meets Fritz the Cat, Bugs Bunny meets Betty Boop. The play itself was mildly entertaining, but all the nonscripted asides, rants, and riffs were wildly funny, as was the way the players adeptlyplayed off of whatever schtick their fellows introduced on this particular night. Great cast, but one of the most extraordinary performances of the year was presented by Perez whose every sinew could emote passion, anguish, lust, love, longing, or just plain confusion. His eyelids alone deserve a Helen Hayes nomination.

  5. Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va. When it comes to early modern Arethusa, kneeling, hugs the waste of PhilasterEnglish theater, there's Shakespeare, then there's Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, and then there's those other guys. Let's face it; we probably wouldn't be seeing any plays by those other guys if not for Shakespeare. But Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher hit the Shakespeare benchmark with this play. Even with the melodramatic conventions and archetypal characters typical of the tragicomic romance that became the rage of Jacobean theater, Philaster is a well-crafted play with singular characters, a thriller of a plot, and an Othello's worth of great lines and speeches. Usually at the Blackfriars Playhouse, great acting lifts a Shakespeare-contemporary play to the state of good theater; in this instance, it was Beaumont and Fletcher setting a high standard that the ASC troupe successfully met.

Eric Minton
January 1, 2013

Sarah's Picks

Top 10 Shakespeareances
  1. Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, Ore.: "I can still sing every song to Cinderella growing up watching the old TV special, I know who Macbeth is, had no clue about Medea, but what wild fun as they all mashed together."

  2. The Taming of the Shrew, Synetic Theater, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.: "The banquet where everybody kept the food away from Kate, and the bedroom scene—I pass the poster of that regularly in Crystal City, and I always think how fun that was."

  3. A Commedia Romeo and Juliet, Faction of Fools Theatre Company, Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Washington, D.C.: "'Pray harder!'"

  4. A Midsummer Night's Dream,The Shakespeare Forum, New York, N.Y.: "A Hippolyta who would stand up to Theseus, and a fun first fairy."

  5. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Clever By Half, Oak Grove Theater, Verona, Va.: "Mother Nature's cameo with the acorn falling."

  6. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, Great Hall Theatre, St. Mary's Community Center, Baltimore, Md.: "With the dog and the tomatoes, it was fun."

  7. The Rape of Lucrece, Taffety Punk, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.: "It reminded me of the Beat Generation: the music and the poetry all done together." (Eric's note: Sarah is too young to have actually experienced the Beat Generation.)

  8. King John, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.: "The heart and the soul as represented by the character that Ronald Peet played and the character that James Keegan played (Prince Arthur and Hubert, respectively). Not to mention the lion."

  9. Henry V, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Elizabethan Stage, Ashland, Ore.: "It was interesting to realize that politics has been around for longer than people think."

  10. Hamlet, Shakespeare's Globe Tour, Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.: "The English village playhouse atmosphere."
Top 5 Non-Shakespearean Theatrical Moments
  1. War Horse at the Lincoln Center, New York, N.Y.: "Puppets! The goose got the biggest applause in the curtain call, until the horse puppeteers came out."

  2. All the Way, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, Ore.: "LBJ's arm-twisting in the '60s was brilliantly brought back to life. Not sure if we need more or less of it now."

  3. Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.: "It resonates with anyone who has ever served in their country's armed forces" (as Sarah has).

  4. Dido, Queen of Carthage, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.: "Those great speeches by Sarah (Fallon, playing Dido) and René (Thornton Jr. playing Aeneas)."

  5. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Theatre de l'Atelier/Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.: "French actors doing this French story made it more genuine."