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.