…stemming it with hearts of controversy – JULIUS CAESAR, I ii

Among other feelings, I’m feeling that feeling that, say, a lifelong diehard Cubs fan feels when they win the Series and suddenly everyone’s got a hat on, or perhaps that of Bill Murray in Stripes when he defends the then-living Tito Puente. Because suddenly this week everybody’s incredibly well-informed about Julius Caesar.

There’s enough chatter on both sides about the whole shtuss’n’tummel at the Public in Central Park, New York (“that other one”, as we affectionately call it in Louisville, where our Shakespeare company in an Olmstead-designed park started one whole year earlier) that I don’t really feel the need to write a whole post going on about it. I only popped on here to note that I’ve been thinking of a different play for a couple of days, one I bought an LP box of (because they used to do that with straight plays in a simpler time) at a used record store in Cambridge, Mass. sometime just before the end of the last century.

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It made its premiere just over fifty years ago, in January of 1967. It was called MacBird and starred Stacy Keach, Rue McClanahan, and marked the professional debut of Cleavon Little. It reads like a particularly edgy MAD Magazine lampoon (let me be clear that I mean that as a compliment) but at fuller length.

Here’s a little wiki-history.

The reasons why it came to mind are probably wildly obvious, so I’ll just bring it up and leave it here for you. The times, they are, uh…changin’?

Music do I hear? – RICHARD II, V v

Another show, another mix. I’ve gone for kind of a Wes Anderson soundtrack feel here, seeing as the nature of Richard’s character is fairly Euro-emo (Yérmo? That does get the Yé-Yé in there). I mean, look at that face…

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That’s a Wes Anderson face. Having feelings. Right, Neill? (That’s Neill.)

He was born in Bordeaux and all (Richard, I mean), so some French pop will be welcome. A little more introspection than is particularly healthy, so some Kinks (more than one song by the same artist, which normally goes against my personal mix rules, but again, it plays into the Andersonity, so I make an exception here). And other things.

The reasons behind the inclusion of each song float from lyric to title to general mood, depending, though some are admittedly more obvious than others…

Here it is. Break legs. Happy opening – enjoy!

King’s Revenge – Thin Lizzy: I think the lyrics explain themselves, and perhaps the attitude of the multitude, what Bagot calls the “wavering Commons”.

Love and Chivalry (Caprice élégant en forme de schottische)– Louis Moreau Gottschalk: a nice Andersonian instrumental, plus the title, right?

I’m On an Island – The Kinks: The nature imagery throughout this play is notable, not just for Gaunt’s famous “sceptered isle” speech. I like to think this is Richard separated from the Queen.

Old Old Woodstock – Van Morrison: The domino that starts it all tumbling down the stairs is Woodstock. (Why does he fly upside down?)

C’est Notre Histoire – Lysiane Loren: It’s our history. Oui?

What’s the Buzz – Roy Meriwether Trio: Something about Bushie, Bagot, & Greene always makes me think of this, but also there’s a LOT of throwing around of Judas’s name every time anyone so much as puts too much mustard on Richard’s sandwich. Listening to this version also reminds me how much Sir Andrew stole from Donovan, but that’s not important here.

Long Daddy Green – Blossom Dearie: Not so much because I’m playing Greene as to acknowledge the importance of what Harvey Korman would call Count De Monet in this particular tale.

Friendly Loans – The Marcels: “Why cousin, wert though Regent of the world,/ It were a shame to let this land by lease.”

Something’s Coming – Bill Barron Orchestra: It’s name is Henry and he’s safe at Ravenspurg, fresh from exile. Something Good? Maybe…

Green Green Grass of Home – Tom Jones: Not only another paean to the land itself, but featuring a Welshman in honor of the superstitious captain who leaves at greatly exaggerated rumors of Richard’s demise.

Surrey with the Fringe on Top – Sonny Rollins: This is useless, but I think of it whenever Surrey’s name is mentioned, so…

Help! – Cathy Berberian: These lyrics remind me of Richard a couple of times in the play, but particularly during his “sit upon the ground” breakdown.

Stop Your Sobbing – The Kinks: …and these remind me of everyone around Richard in said scene.

In the Garden – Hee Haw Gospel Quartet: Have a seat. Have an apricock. I have some bad news.

Je Crois En Toi – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Original 1961 French Cast): If you know How to Succeed, you know this scene is a bunch of guys in an executive washroom yelling about their competition (“I’ve gotta stop that man cold or he’ll stop me”), followed by Our Hero’s personal pep talk into a mirror. This French version fit the vibe better.

Fractured Mirror – Ace Frehley: “For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers.”

It’s a Sunshine Day – The Brady Bunch: “’God save King Henry’, unking’d Richard says,/ ‘And send him many years of sunshine days.” And then from the side stage I sing this under my breath.

Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers: “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”, “Ay, no”…

A Woman Is a Sometime Thing – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: “Good sometime Queen, prepare thee hence for France…”

Yesterday – Roosevelt Grier: This and the next few songs are all definite Richard-at-Pomfret underscoring, top to bottom. And yes, that’s Rosie Grier.

Too Much on My Mind – The Kinks: “For no thought is contented.” I mean, right?

The Party’s Over – Judy Holliday: Melodramatic showtunes seem like they’d be Richard thing if he had been born a few centuries later.

I Can Hear Music – She & Him: “Keep time!”

Magic Garden – Dusty Springfield: Were there a closing credits sequence, this would doubtless play over it. But it’s a play, so there isn’t. But still. Jimmy Webb clearly read Richard II.

He is our cousin, cousin – RICHARD II, I iv

A fancy note for the audiences who will be coming to Kentucky Shakespeare’s Richard II:

For all of the political goings-on in Shakespeare’s Histories, the thing to bear in mind while you’re needlessly stressing yourself out about who’s going by which title in this scene (and it is needless; don’t stress out) is that they’re really all family affairs, tales of fathers and sons and cousins and brothers (yes, predominantly men, though the women, sparse as their stage time may be, always seem to be the people most concerned about the cohesion of the family unit) doing rotten stuff to each other in the name of something that falls between Honor and Ambition, with sprinkles of Vengeance thrown in.

Richard II, for example, could easily be described as the story of a couple of brothers who have just lost another brother, probably killed at the command of their nephew, who just happens to be king. Or the story of two cousins, both with powerful fathers who never quite got to be in charge, metaphorically arm-wrestling over which of them gets to be in charge. Almost all the major players are closely related by blood or marriage. Here’s a simple Wikipedia family tree, drawn by Muriel Gottrop (all that Creative Commons stuff applies here).

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And this one doesn’t even include all the many, many sons of Edward III. They were coming out his ears. Good standard policy for a king: one or two sons? Great. But it reaches a point where too many sons become a problem and people start waking up dead in the morning. But, as is noted by James Goldman’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

All of these sons of Edward III got up to all sorts of nonsense that Shakespeare mercifully leaves out and/or condenses (the less said about John of Gaunt’s attempts to claim a Spanish throne, the better), but the thrust of this particular play isn’t even the internecine family shenanigans so much as the question of who (if anyone) gets to decide whether the Heaven-Anointed King is rotten at his job, and if so, what can be done about it.

Now, Shakespeare’s audience would have probably known a fair amount about the main players in this story, in part because it was their nation’s history, in part because royals & rulers have been afforded celebrity status for centuries – The Queen Herself bets in the middle of this play that a pair of commoners she encounters will “talk of State: for everyone doth so/ Against a change” (the change in this case not being a good one for her…) – and in part because they didn’t live in our age of Television Renaissance and absent a new episode of Nashville waiting for them when they got home, they had to have something in their heads. So they had a basic familiarity with these powerful families in a way that we might, in a poorly combined analogy, have of the Kennedys and the Skywalkers.

A version of all the “Previously on…” information needed to make sense of Richard II  would have been easy to acquire to folks in Elizabethan London since there was a popular not-by-Shakespeare play, often called Woodstock, that covered the events leading up to Shakespeare’s – namely, the sketchy death of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Richard’s uncle. It’s assumed that its popularity was one of the reasons Shakespeare even wrote his “sequel” to it. But we’re not doing that play (I’ve read it; it’s pretty lumpy). So this production will open with a prologue written/assembled for the occasion that will, one hopes,put forward all you need to know leading up to Act I Scene I.

Seeing a good production is, as is true of any play, always clearer than reading it, if for no other reason than you have faces and voices to put with the names. And lord knows the British aristocracy depicted in Shakespeare collected names/titles like characters in Russian novels. So this prologue is also a nice chance to say (though not so baldly), “See that guy? He’s the Duke of York. See her? Her husband just died and almost nobody’s happy about it.”

Here’s something else that might be handy: a map of England at around (just after) Richard’s time.

So if you’re wondering where he lands when we come back from intermission (and he comes back from Ireland), it’s just west of the E in WALES. Or where Bullingbrooke lands when he comes back from exile? Ravenspur is on the northeast coast, north of The Wash. Bristol isn’t terribly hard to find on here, and I’ll trust you to spot London on your own. There isn’t a terrible amount of fighting in the play (which is one of the big problems some of the other nobles have with Richard’s reign, really – the missed opportunity to gain money and land through fighting. Though being less war-prone would be seen as a strength to modern eyes. Except he manages to send soldiers off to Ireland, so, his hands aren’t that clean). So feel free to ignore the battlefields until next year when Henry IV née Bullingbrooke does a fair amount of sparring with…well, I won’t tell you until 2018.

…in the even road of a blank verse… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, V ii

We opened Much Ado last night at Kentucky Shakespeare, our second audience, and I’ve already noticed something fascinating.

The Wife and I got to play Petruchio and Kate in Taming of the Shrew a couple of years ago and now we’re playing Beatrice and Benedick. (We’re running out of bucket list pairings, frankly. Maybe Don Armado and Moth? She’d be a terrific Armado.) The sort of easy go-to critical response is that the former are just a rough draft of the latter, but I’d fight that to the end. I’ve gone on about this before. And I should add to those previous musings first that K&P and the whole world of that play are all painted in rather broad strokes (not an aspersion; I love broad strokes).

And there’s another vital difference – B&B are almost entirely prose and K&P in verse.

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Not just verse, but early verse, so very end-stoppy, by which I mean their thoughts and phrases often coincide neatly with what Benedick calls the “even road of a blank verse”. Take for example this from Petruchio (which I memorized when I was 18 for something and if I ever have an accident or a stroke will probably provide my Mel-Blanc-“What’s-up-Doc?” awakening, so put that in your pocket just in case – pardon the lack of Folio spelling, but it’s faster to type from memory):

          Thus have I politicly begun my reign,

          And ‘tis my hope to end successfully;

          My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,

          And till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

          For then she never looks upon her lure.

 

And so on. If you say that out loud to yourself while obeying the verse, you can hear how confident it sounds. It can be acted in a way that makes that confidence sound false (which is helpful when playing a palatable Petruchio in a 21st century production), but still each little chunk of logic/thought lines up with each chunk of verse.

It’s a good general order of operations, I think, to give the verse rhythmic priority over the punctuation, or if you prefer, to see the verse as another type of punctuation, something I’ve probably gone on about before and will again. In early Shakespeare, the verse and sentence structure have a tendency to line up anyway. This is tricky when playing comedy, because a huge part of comedy is rhythm that feels unexpected but right (if that makes any sense; I’m not sure it can or should be properly verbalized). So a predestined ten-syllable line makes for some specific choices, one of which can always be to break the line, I guess, though that provides its own challenges.

But in prose, you have a lot more wiggle room – one of the results of even characters in the early plays like, say, Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona being written in prose is not a sense of low social standing but a freedom to wing it a bit so people don’t clearly know how your line will end. Petruchio’s longer speeches are all little even verse arias that are tough to interrupt beyond a) actor-manufactured bits and b) trying to let laughs land between lines. Not a bad thing, again, but a difference. Launce’s prose is all about little gag set pieces (The Shoes Story; The Dog Piss Story). Very entertaining but not what you’d call character development.

And so we’re back to Benedick. Yes, he shares Petruchio’s professed He-Man Woman-Hating, although he’s nowhere near as hard-boiled and drops it at the first sign of a serious situation come the abandoned wedding of Act IV.

Our Gang Hi Sign

And yes, he shares the Sam’n’Dianity of his romantic sparking with his inevitable lady-partner. But Benedick only slides into verse sporadically, and never for long. So instead of the above soliloquy, when Benedick speaks to the audience, they get:

          I doe much wonder,

          that one man seeing how much another man is a foole,

          when he dedicates his behaviours to love,

          will after hee hath laught at such shallow follies in others,

          become the argument of his owne scorne,

          by falling in love,

          & such a man is Claudio,

 

and on for a while without a period for about twenty lines. The above layout is not the way it’s set in the Folio or any modern edition, but I wanted to highlight the commas. They’re not grammatical so much as rhythmic and I’ve been using them for emphasis in various ways (breathing, smacking the word before the comma a bit harder, etc.) and they do all the work for you, setting up the joke, subtle on the page but a really solid laugh in performance, that the audience is being wound up to hear an admission and gets only more mockery of the lovelorn (which will pay off with the other Benedick soliloquy that provides the scene’s matching bookend).

Folio Much Ado

Now, I knew these things intellectually and to a degree even practically before these last two nights of handing the show over to the audience. But the feeling of the way the audience’s attention works during that speech, and how using that punctuation to ensure that everything comes in clear so as to set up the punchline that is the word “Claudio”, is just that: a feeling. Difficult (and maybe not useful) to get more specific about.

It’s also not nothing that Benedick reaps the rewards of being in a better play than Shrew or Gents – I love ‘em both, but the script gives the audience a chance to be genuinely emotionally invested in Benedick, so his moments with the audience and with Beatrice aren’t set pieces but an ever-evolving series of builds and payoffs with an almost Tati-esque level of development and structure, all torn apart and then seemingly falling back together when you aren’t expecting it. (If I didn’t have to go do the show I’d get more specific but for example check out the way women being “wise”, “fair”, and “virtuous” is used in different spots throughout II iii).

And this later/denser writing (plus being in a different story) gives Benedick a vulnerability Petruchio lacks and an intelligence that Launce (of course) lacks. B still has some of the emotional immaturity of those two, but it seems to be in its waning days as the play continues and he learns things.

And when he does use verse, it’s tricky. The title of this post is from a soliloquy in which Benedick says he “was not born under a rhyming planet”, dooming his poetic attempts. But in the next scene in which he appears he speaks for a long time in verse that stutters nervously but in perfect rhythm. I didn’t notice this until well into rehearsals, but as he asks Leonato for Beatrice’s hand, notice the weird syllable repetitions:

          Signior Leonato, truth it is good Signior,

          Your neece regards me with an eye of favour…

          Your answer sir is Enigmaticall…

THEN:

          In which (good Frier) I shall desire your helpe.

 

Weird little internal rhyme there. The only other major rhyming by Benedick was in prose and was looong ago after the dance when he tells the Prince:

          Yet it had not beene amisse the rod had beene made,

          and the garland too,

          for the garland he might have worne himselfe,

          and the rod hee might have bestowed on you,

          who (as I take it) have stolne his bird’s nest.

 

Which he ruins intentionally (and to me delightfully) with that last line and which isn’t in iambic pentameter at all but cannot be said unrhymingly.

But now, meeting Claudio again towards the end he comes of with (and bear in mind that this rhymed better in the pronunciation of the era):

          Bull Jove sir, had an amiable low,

          And some such strange bull leapt your father’s Cow,

          ‘E got a Calfe in that same noble feat,

          Much like to you, for you have just his bleat.

 

Easy as you please. And then it all falls apart, for the next thing he’s responsible for is a public proposal to a woman too wise to woo peaceably. Spoiler: it all works out.

These probably don’t read to an audience at all, but these are the details that make this work such a pleasure.

We’re supposed to have lovely weather all weekend. Y’all come see us.

 

* Photo by Bill Brymer

Therefore play, music! – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, V iv

It wouldn’t be a show if I didn’t make a mix, now would it? (cf. Titus & Macbeth; They Might Be Giants did the honors for R&G Are Dead.)

So I’m going to go act and stuff now. Enjoy the playlist, available here on YouTube. I knew it would turn out a little Benedick-centric because frankly I’m lucky to remember what I’m saying at this point, much less anyone else, but there’s also more mid-/late-60s’ soul here than a Regency-set Elizabethan play might initially imply. It’s summer, and that where my summer ear always leads.

Explanations? Well, I’ll try. If it doesn’t make sense before you see the show, it might make more after. Join us, won’t you?

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1) “Weep No More” – Billie Holiday, featuring the Stardusters: As close to “Sigh No More” as popular music is going to give us.

2) ”Heroes and Villains” – Beach Boys: As good an alternate show title as popular music is going to give us.

3) “Just One Look” – Doris Troy: Seriously, Claudio, we’re not in a hurry. We’re staying for a month.

4) “Better Off Without A Wife” – Tom Waits: “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

5) “She’s Actual Size” – They Might Be Giants: The short jokes at Hero’s expense just never stop, but she’s clearly got more going on than it appears.

6) “Just the Way I Am” – Dolly Parton: “Let me be that I am and do not seek to alter me,” quoth Don John when he isn’t crying in his room singing along with Dolly.

7) “Get On the Good Foot” – James Brown: “With a good leg and a good foot, uncle, and money enough in his purse, such a man would win any woman in the world, if ‘e could get her good will.”

8) “Harlem Globetrotters Theme Song” – Hanna-Barbera: “Will Your Grace command me any service to the world’s end?”

9) “Seven Days Too Long” – Chuck Wood: Claudio (always with the hurrying) wants to marry tomorrow, but Leonato makes him wait a “just sevennight” and I’m sure this is how the poor kid feels.

10) “Good Morning Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip” – Eugene Buckley & Peerless Quartet: “Hath any man seen him at the barber’s?”

11) “Fire” – The Pointer Sisters: “What fire is in mine ears?” asks the recently gulled Beatrice. But we know, don’t we?

12) “Silhouettes” – The Rays: Pretty much a summing up of what happens offstage during our intermission, until the last verse, anyway.

13) “For What It’s Worth” – The Staple Singers: A little something for Messina’s capable night watch.

14) “Oh No, Not My Baby” – Maxine Brown: And back we go to Claudio’s seemingly constant mental state…

15) “Where Were You Last Night?” – Traveling Wilburys: Ditto.

16) “Twine Time” – Alvin Cash & the Crawlers: After the (spoiler) spoiled wedding, Leonato goes along with a convoluted scheme – “Being that I flow in grief,/ The smallest twine may lead me.”

17) “Strange” – Patsy Cline: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you, is not that strange?”

18) “I Would Do Anything For Love” – Future Idiots: Except, you know, kill Claudio.

19) “Sticks and Stones” – Ray Charles: This just seemed a pretty solid B&B mission statement song.

20) “The Question (Do You Love Me)” – Dave “Baby” Cortez: This is a question that comes up a lot, in life, I suppose, but definitely in Much Ado.

21) “Tombstone” – Suzanne Vega: The whole epitaph-reading thing, obviously.

22) “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” – The Ronettes (though I almost put the Flo & Eddie version on too because I love them equally): Clearly this covers most of the mood of Act V Scene iv.

23) “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” – Tina Turner: “Another Hero?” “Nothing certainer.”

24) “My Terms” – Helena Ferguson: Another general-sentiment-of-V-iv song.

25) “Church Bells May Ring” – The Willows: While this could go with the ending of any of the comedies, I put it here because there’s this great church bell sound cue in our show that sounds terrific from the audience but is deafening from backstage in a way that still makes me jump every time as if one of Scrooge’s spirits is about to appear right behind me.

There you go. I’m going to try to squeeze in a nap now.

I yield upon great persuasion – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, V iv

All due Nerd Alerts and apologies, if such are necessary by now.

This production of Much Ado About Nothing that’s happening at Kentucky Shakespeare is set (roughly) during the Regency period, with allowances for the fact that a) Messina is in Italy and b) we’re in the business of popular theater, not rigorous Historical Recreation. The most important reasons for this setting are the obvious parallels to be drawn, noticed by even mildly attentive folks long before this production, between this particular play and multiple works of Jane Austen.

The obvious hook here is Pride and Prejudice, what with the saucy woman of intelligence, impatient with her lot in a Man’s World*, and her public war of words with a haughty man who shows no interest in her despite the obviousness (to us) that they will end up together forever OTP shippity ship ship insert tumblr meme here.

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I’m going to presume your familiarity with P&P as it’s a difficult piece of popular culture to avoid, with or without the zombies. And it’s equally difficult while in the midst of a production of Much Ado not to find similarities ranging from the obvious (the romantic naïvete of Claudio Bingley & Jane Hero, Benedick’s list of necessary female qualities that is so close to Darcy’s it’s only a “pair of fine eyes” short of a direct quote, a nice mid-contra-dance spat) to the more esoteric – for example, I’m pretty sure the true Darcy personality analog is Don John and not Benedick; Benedick is a Wickham if ever there was one, in public at least, the private behavior of Wickham being the purview of Borachio instead. Austen just swapped their places in the structure of the story – true to form, it’s the men Austen finds interchangeable (Don John as he is would probably be at least as at home in Northanger Abbey as he is in Shakespeare) and makes almost tangential, just problems to be dealt with by the women, to whom she gives a society and inner life of their own. Take Leonato’s wife, Innogen (if you can find  her), a character that appears in a stage direction and a half and is given a name (barely) but no lines. Our knowledge of her existence seems purely due to an early draft in which no one got around to scratching her name out. I like to think of Mrs. Bennet as Jane’s Revenge for this oversight, a double verbosity to balance a muteness.

P&P 1995 mrs bennet

Abigail and I, in working on Bea & Ben’s scenes also noticed strong ties between the whole Kill Claudio business (if you’re reading this before you’ve watched our second half, spoiler alert) and the Vacationing Lizzie Tells Darcy About Lydia & Thinks He’s Skipping Town Because of It Which He Is But Not the Way She Thinks scene.** There are differences between the situations of the two women’s shamed relatives and between the types of dutiful feeling that spur the two men into action (Benedick loves Claudio and Darcy loathes Wickham, for starters), but the similarities are so clear that it feels wasteful to go into more detail.

Also notable to us were the equally quotable direct-yet-confusing declarations of love – what is “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you”, followed by details of Darcy’s sense of the general Bennet inferiority if not a one-page restating of Benedick’s single sentence “I do love nothing in the world so well as you; is not that strange?” And towards the end, note Lizzie’s “Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?” when laid alongside Beatrice’s “For which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?” This isn’t brain surgery, but neither is it coincidence.

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But to me, while the comedy angle of the Beatrice and Benedick plot (minus the elements of farce Jane disposes of) takes place very nicely alongside P&P, an important part of Much Ado also bears a strong resemblance to Persuasion, in that our pair of inevitables have some sort of history together that took a bad turn before the story begins and will need to be righted before it can end. Also, the word “prejudice” appears nowhere in the play – though in her snappy little soliloquy after she’s tricked into belief in Benedick’s lovesickness, Beatrice does come forth with “Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?/ Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu” which is really pretty close, sensewise – but there’s “persuasion” right in Beatrice’s final line (as noted in the title of this post). I’ve left out Mansfield Park, but it gives off more of a King-Lear-meets-All’s-Well vibe. Hamlet is read aloud in Sense & Sensibility, which must count for something.

On the subject of Emma, however, Shakespeare remains silent. Unless she’s Puck… Maybe some other season.

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* It could be argued that this wasn’t really Austen’s focus, but it’s certainly an aspect that registers significantly now.

** I turned to my lovely wife for many of the Austenian particulars in this post; I enjoy those six novels greatly (and I also recommend Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adapted Lady Susan – the film is delightful and his modification of the book is doubly so) and am an avid and unashamed watcher of any nine-hour BBC whispers-and-corsetry melodrama, but Abigail is fleeter than Google when you need a quote or a scene location from P&P. Ponder for a moment how many novels you can readily quote from if you’re a normal person whose job doesn’t require it. Not that she’s a normal person…

…an improbable fiction – TWELFTH NIGHT, III iv

All three shows in this summer’s season of Kentucky Shakespeare feature one of those little moments I love, which keep us (the show-makers) from getting too precious about ourselves. Shakespeare loves to throw these in, but they’re not always there and I’m glad we have one in each of this year’s scripts.

That is to say: cheap and easy metatheatre, not of the more obvious and showier Hamlet/Midsummer lay-within-a-play type but rather that kind where a character says in so many words, “Huh; it’s almost like you people are watching a play right now or something…” and the audience says, “Yup.” No litcrit treatises required, just a pleasant but trippy little flash of the Droste effect.

The techniques of actors are mentioned when the conspirators meet in Julius Caesar and Brutus admonishes them not to look all dark and guilty about this (“good! – I swear! – good!”) project they’re about to embark on, lest someone catch on too soon:

          Let not our lookes put on our purposes,

          But beare it as our Roman Actors do,

          With untyr’d Spirits and formal Constancie,

“untyr’d” in this case playing with the obvious sense of “not tired” but also “undressed”, “not attired” (seeing as how the Frenchy word “costume” didn’t sneak across the Channel for another couple of hundred years and actors were still changing backstage in what they called a “tiring house”), which is gloriously tricky talk: don’t look guilty because a) that will blow the whole plan but also importantly b) what, when you strip everything away, do you have to look guilty about when our basic purpose is so gosh-darned pure? Oh, Brutus. Stoicism doesn’t mix well with your naïve grasp on human nature. Been there, pal.

But that’s less metatheatre than a useful simile. The fun bit comes right after the fun and difficult to stage stabby scene* when Cassius has the (purely genuine or meant to manipulate or both? Actor’s call) philosophical presence of mind to wonder:

                                       How many Ages hence

          Shall this our lofty Scene be acted over,

          In State unborne, and Accents yet unknowne?

Brutus picks up the thought:

          How many times shall Caesar bleed in Sport

          That now…lye along,

          No worthier than the dust?

And then Cassius chimes back in with one of the play’s many understatements of gross miscalculation:

          So oft as that shall be,

          So often shall the knot of us be called,

          The Men that gave their Country liberty.

The path of that thought gives the audience a nice trajectory from “You called it, Cassius” to “Cool; we’re watching that happen right now” to “But guys, that whole spin doesn’t really play out for you in the long run” (or, if the audience knows the play, even the incredibly short run).

Richard II is all about pageantry and a king who lives for it, but he doesn’t speak in theatrical terms as often as you’d think. The real meta moment comes just after his super-fancy deposition scene with the broken mirror and the “Ay, no, no, I” business and all kinds of melodrama, Richard being a terrific part to tear a cat in** – and the next scene starts with Richard’s uncle York telling his wife the story of Henry IV’s triumphant ride amongst the people and the way-less-triumphant Richard’s similar ride after him:

          As in a Theater, the eyes of Men,

          After a well grac’d Actor leaves the Stage,

          Are idlely bent on him that enters next,

          Thinking his prattle to be tedious,

which manages both to compare the less-popular Richard with the triumphant Henry, but also compare the scattered and about-to-be-quite-comic (at last – this play is sparse on the levity) actor playing York with the impressiveness of the big Richard set piece that preceded this little scene of would-be domesticity and boots. I laugh every time in rehearsal, and the actor playing York isn’t particularly playing it up. It’s just unavoidable.

There’s little of this in Much Ado, since the scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into romance are so inherently theatrical it’s scarcely worth mentioning in great detail. But just in case you were nodding off, at the end of the fooling of Benedick, Don Pedro mentions it anyway:

          the sport will be, when they hold one an opinion of another’s dotage, and no such matter, that’s the Scene that I would see, which will be merely a dumb show…

“merely a dumb show” being an odd way to describe any scene between Beatrice and Benedick, who even for characters in Shakespeare are chatty (and prose-chatty at that which is harder to memorize than verse-chatty, believe you me). Perhaps he’s just thinking wishfully; perhaps, considering that the dumb show usually served as a prologue to the main action, that’s more what he’s going for. There are, as always, options.

As I said, I’m happy these little nuggets appear in each of the summer’s plays because I love to look for the little similarities in plays that weren’t chosen by that criteria. More connections will start popping up once we’re doing all three in rotation. They always do. Assuming there’s anything left of our minds to notice such things at that point…

 

*I’ll be Caska in ours and I’m looking forward to going in with the first poke, partially for Drama and partially because it’s only going to get harder to stage from there.

** that’s from Shakespeare…

for ALWAYS I am Caesar – JULIUS CAESAR, I ii

During the week of May 8-14, I:

-was a part of the first read-through of Kentucky Shakespeare’s impending summer togas-and-all Julius Caesar;

-saw Kentucky Shakespeare’s 90-minute outdoor spring touring modern dress production of Julius Caesar;

-saw Shakespeare Behind Bars’s annual production at Luther Luckett Correctional Facility, directed by the same director as the previous two. Did I mention it was Julius Caesar?

It’s fascinating to experience so many related-but-unrelated productions of the same story in such a short span, especially having connections with each. Obviously I’m in one of them. I did the 90-minute cutting for another. And I’ve seen I think seven performances by the men of Shakespeare Behind Bars – the work Matt Wallace does with them as facilitator of these productions (which is like directing but allows them to take over a lot of the heavy lifting, especially in letting the older hands help in making the newer members of the group learn the ropes) never ceases to move and amaze.

And by move, I don’t just mean emotionally – those guys do not waste time or air but hustle the show along at a pace and with a clarity that professionals should pay attention to – they worked from a very lightly trimmed script (I think Antony’s servant, Cicero & Caius Ligarius were the only real cuts) and came in at about two hours and five minutes including intermission. Ponder any production you’ve ever seen and do the math. And they didn’t rush. They just moved. Everyone knew what was being said and didn’t worry about showing off emotionally. There wasn’t time; too much stuff was happening.

The thing that’s especially impressive about these productions is that often performances of the sort of Shakespeare Behind Bars are purely art therapy, which is valuable enough on its own. But in the dozen years I’ve been able see these performances, I’ve seen so much growth among the men as performers as well. I’ve also had the benefit of conversation with many of them about Shakespeare and performance (and pretty much exclusively that) and let me assure you they know what they’re talking about when they talk about those things. I count them as some of the most rewarding conversations and audience experiences of my life.

The performers also have a real knack that I wish I could figure out how to transfer to pro productions, which is this perfect toggle between utter silliness in the parts that should be played for laughs and the heightened tragic or supernatural. Lucius’s borderline narcolepsy that bookends the appearance of Caesar’s ghost, for example – they proved it possible to make an audience spring from goofy to intense and then relieve them back into goofy, thereby landing in a nice median from which we could move into the next matters at hand. That sounds like a weirdly specific thing, but it is a constantly useful skill when dealing with Shakespeare.

The 90-minute tour I have to step back from complimenting because I had a hand in it and therefore it’s not my place, but I really dug the modern setting. Those can go up and down. I’ve probably said here before that I’m less interested in whether the production obeyed the tenets of presumed original historical Elizabethan practices or was devised by puppeteers through theatre games and more interested in whether it was good. This simple black-suits-&-political-posters version with only six actors worked really well. There was little effort to be on the nose about anything politically specific so much as just let it be, which is for the best. If one is determined to shoehorn in precise cultural translations, they had all better work and they had better line up parallel across the full board. This one kept it generally in the political sphere (because that’s where the story happens) without trying to make anyone too precisely represent any one modern situation.

The reading was fun if only because I got to wear my dramaturg hat as well as my bald actor pate.* And I’m Caska, which means a light and frothy second half as a couple of one-liner soldiers. It’s terrific, this relatively calm second act, and will be even better once the reality that is an Ohio Valley July sets in. You can sometimes gauge actors’ ages or experience purely by how they respond to the idea of reinstating or cutting lines. Especially in a rep company when you have a fun and chewy role in one show and a medium-to-small role in the others. All actors are Nick Bottom at heart, but there’s a time when even the theatrical ego takes a relieved back seat to mental and physical exhaustion.

Alright. Onward. The Bishop of Carlisle isn’t going to memorize himself.

* The reason there’s been precious little action on this blog of late comes down to that as well – rehearsals started May 1 and I’ve been here for every scene every day until yesterday. At some point I should probably get fully off book for Benedick (I’m THIS CLOSE**); Greene and the Bishop of Carlisle are less of a worry, since Richard II opens two weeks later and I have only about two pages worth of lines, all verse, to Benedick’s twenty-five of prose.

**Update: got it.

Avaunt, and quit my sight! – MACBETH, III iv

I have one measly day off.

I chose to ignore the citywide bacchanal that is the Kentucky Derby because I’m marshaling my energies. I read, there may have been some knitting, and I spent a fair amount of time planning the first session of this Shakespeare readers’ workshop/book club/thing I’m doing this week. We may have watched the entirety of Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans with our lunch. There was a cocktail, another thing, like free time, that will be scarce as the summer continues (for vocal protection).

At 8:00, The Bad and the Beautiful, which I haven’t seen in quite a while, came on TCM. It’s good (an Essential, even*), so I left it on. Shields (Kirk Douglas) comes to Georgia‘s (Lana Turner) apartment and finds out she’s daughter of a (dead) John Barrymore-esque actor he had known. He puts on a record of her father performing (voiced by Louis Calhern, which I just realized I should look up and check except I know that voice and have no need to confirm). He is of course performing Shakespeare. Because as I have noted time and time again, I am not allowed to escape.

Calhern is doing a gloriously orotund Macbeth, kicking in at “She should have died hereafter”, but then (because that’s what I’m listening to, of course, not the scene that’s happening on top of it) the audio loops back to an earlier bit from before Lady M.’s death with which I’m reasonably familiar. (My wife confirmed it, as she remembered hearing it while waiting to scream offstage when she played said Lady.)

But I decided not to let it ruin my night; simply to accept the inevitable. And keep watching, at least until Gloria Grahame’s part is finished.

I wouldn’t mention it here were it not the second time it’s happened this week.

Rehearsals started Monday, so we’re not in crazy crunch time like we’ll be in, oh, another week. So we thought we’d tick one off the DVR on, I forget, Tuesday or Wednesday. We watch a lot of Cagney and a lot of the sort of comedies of that era some call screwball, yet somehow neither of us had seen The Bride Came C.O.D.

It’s a so-so movie, mostly a rejuggling of It Happened One Night, but on a night off I ask little, just a dopey bit of escapism after a long day of acting (and dancing) Much Ado, and a few minutes in, on comes the manipulative radio announcer (Stuart Erwin) to report that “the musical world’s most eligible bachelor, Allen Brice, will tonight become a Benedict”.

Now, I ask you. This isn’t even a movie about actors where one might expect that sort of thing. Unfair. Badly done, DVR.

Back to work tomorrow. Heaven knows what will accost me in my three-week-old New Yorker on the bus.

 

 

* And full of great lines. “There are no great men, buster. There’s only men.” Also Gloria Grahame, for which I would watch and have watched nearly anything.