Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Welcome to Stratford

The summer will soon be upon us and that means many things. It's baseball season, Dream in High Park starts (relatively) soon, al fresco dining is back within the realm of possibility. But most important of all, it means the start of a new season at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, my personal favourite destination for theatre in the whole world. I'm hoping to see every play on their roster this summer and my annual Stratford weekend with fellow My Theatre writer Tessa is already in the works. This year's season is as follows:

The Tempest
As You Like It
The Winter's Tale
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Peter Pan
Dangerous Liaisons
Do Not Go Gentle
King of Thieves
Jaques Brel is a Alive and Well and Living in Paris
For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again
Kiss Me Kate

Click Here to watch an excellent ad for festival student discounts that shows you everything I love about Ontario. It starts in Toronto and takes you to Stratford where you see the theatre store, balzac's cafe, foster's inn and the famed festival theatre- the greatest place on earth.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Shakespeare is more amazing than you give him credit for

Much Ado About a Midsummer Night’s King Macbeth IV Part 2


Remembering William Shakespeare

On this most auspicious of days, April 23- Shakespeare's birthday, I thought that I might take a moment or two to remember one of the greatest men who ever lived.

Shakespeare was, both in my opinion and in the opinion of most of the intelligent people in the world, the most brilliant writer who ever put pen to paper. As a theater buff, actor, and director, I find it almost impossible to find any writer that even comes close to measuring up to the immortal Bard. So, that being said, let’s get on to the actual point of this rant—giving you REASONS that Shakespeare is, in fact, better than you will EVER be.

1. Shakespeare invented words. Lots of them.

You know the term “eyeballs”? Yeah, Shakespeare invented that expression. The verb “to ensnare”? Strait out of Othello. The word “fashionable”? Shakespeare. Yeah, that’s right. Shakespeare either invented or was the first to write down more words than any other author in the history of the English language. By some accounts, he invented more than 1,700 words and phrases. Yeah, this one old English guy made up more words than most high school students are even capable of putting down in an essay (and that’s including repeating “a” as many times as they possibly can).

2. Shakespeare died at the rich old age of 52.

Shakespeare was recorded to have died at the age of 52 (on his birthday, by the way). Generally, it’s accepted that Shakespeare’s theatrical career began sometime in the 1580s, and that it ended around 1613. So he was writing for (quick math here)...about 30 years, give or take. In the course of about 30 years, he churned out 38 plays. For those of us who AREN’T mathematically impaired, that’s more than a play a year, and almost all of them are masterpieces (Comedy of Errors excepted). In the amount of time that it takes some people to pay off their college debt, Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest works ever written.

3. If it’s been done, Shakespeare did it first.

If anything has ever been done by anyone, Shakespeare’s already done it. I DARE you to think of one thing that’s been done by anyone ever that Shakespeare didn’t in some way write about first. For example, let’s pick one of the most (pathetically) modern things I can think of: the “your mom” joke. Surely that’s a modern thing that Shakespeare had never even...oh wait, Titus Andronicus. And I quote:

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.”

Yeah, that’s right. Shakespeare was making jokes about your mother’s promiscuity before your great great great grandparents were born.

4. Shakespeare died in 1616

1616! As in the early 17th century. As in 394 years ago. So nearly 400 years after his death, we’re STILL talking about just how awesome Shakespeare was. You know what people are going to probably say about me 400 years after my death? I imagine it going something like this:

Person 1: So, have you heard of this Jim guy?
Person 2: No, who’s that?
Person 1: No idea. [long pause] What were we talking about again?
Person 3: Hey guys, want to take a day trip to Mars?”

Yeah. No one’ll be talking about how awesome I am 400 years from now, and yet here we are continuing to say how much of a genius Shakespeare was. I mean, the fact that we know his name 400 years later is pretty awesome, considering that there were kind of a lot of people in London in the early 1600s.

5. Dick Jokes.

Jokes about guys named Richard (ala Richard III) and jokes about the male anatomy. And female anatomy. And all things dirty, raunchy, and otherwise inappropriate for discussion in front of your grandmother (in case you couldn’t tell, I like making fun of your ancestors).

Anyway, Shakespeare wrote more dick jokes than possibly any other famous dead white guy. In fact, the entire plot of one of his most well known works, Romeo & Juliet can be boiled down to a series of off-colour jokes about how the two main characters just really want to do each other. Hell, even the priests get in on the fun-- Friar Laurence and Romeo have a great conversation about how the good Friar suspects he spent the night with Rosaline rather than sleeping.

So, let’s go ahead and consider that for a minute. Shakespeare is great. Greater than anyone else who has ever written, and pretty much anyone who will ever write. So, on this most auspicious of days, let us raise our glasses to the immortal bard, and remember him for the incredible plays that continue to be popular even 400 years after his death.

Happy Birthday Shakespeare

Yes, that's right kids, it's April 23. Which means that it's Shakespeare's birthday! It's also Shakespeare's deathday (spooky, I know) but that's depressing, so we're going to focus on the fact that it's his birthday.

In honour of this most prestigious of days, I offer you a list of my 15 favourites from the illustrious 38.

15) Titus Andronicus: my good friends the Calliope Players recently tackled this troublesome piece with dignity and artistry, thus redefining it for me.

14) Othello: though plagued with the least sympathetic hero ever, this story finds redemption in well-played Desdemonas and Emilias and the knowledge that it is "Othello's tragedy, but Iago's play".

13) Henry 4th part 1: prince Hal just might be the most human of all history play characters. I've met many a prince Hal in my time and liked them all. Add a little Hotspur and a lot of Falstaff and you've got yourself a mighty fine play.

12) A Midsummer Night's Dream: the Athenian lovers never fail to entertain and when played correctly the fairy court can be incredibly moving. This play is also open to great artistic interpretation. But that act five, I never quite can get over how stupid it is.

11) Twelfth Night: this beautifully melancholy, outrageously funny piece is weighed down only by the annoying fact of its convenient twin plotline. As the first Shakespeare play I ever studied and the first professional production I ever saw (The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2001), Twelfth Night will always hold a special place in my heart.

10) Hamlet: some brilliant themes, complex characters and classic lines make this the most famous thing in the world. A reason to like it I'm sure but also the reason I tend to think it's both brilliant and overrated. Especially hard to play because of the hero's wordiness, Hamlet is a rare Shakespeare that I believe works better on the page than the stage.

9) The Tempest: there's an ethereal magic about The Tempest that draws me in every time. The 2005 production that I saw in Stratford, ON was the great William Hutt's last role, something I will forever be grateful that I witnessed.

8) Much Ado About Nothing: there are few things I love more than banter. I also like smart people, strong people and fiercely loyal people. Much Ado's got all that. A delightful film version with the two actors born to play Beatrice and Benedick (Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh) doesn't hurt.

7) Julius Caesar: last season's Stratford production was my first true introduction to this remarkable piece and it is not one I will soon forget.

6) Merchant of Venice: I firmly believe that this is a tragedy not a comedy and that Shakespeare intended it to be so. I firmly believe that if Shylock's forced conversion at the end was intended to be taken lightly, Shakespeare never would have let him speak such humanizing lines as "if you prick us do we not bleed?". The incredible humanity that exists in these characters is unparalleled, it is a rare and remarkable glimpse of characters who live completely in the grey area between hero and villain.

5) Richard III: a favourite of college professors, Richard III exists on my bookshelf in at least 7 different volumes. And each time I study it I'm taken even further aback by its complexity. As a piece of Tudor propoganda, as historical fiction, as a humanizing character study, as a guide to oratory and poetic device, Richard III works.

4) Romeo & Juliet: over-exposure and belittling interpretation has made this play mockable, but in it the unpretentious examiner will find some of the greatest love poetry ever written, characters so unique that actors flock to them even if they only speak 30 lines or appear in the first 2 acts, and a human story of extreme beauty and folly.

3) Macbeth: my love of Macbeth most likely stems from a highschool production, to this day one of the best I've ever been a part of. But the captivating spiral of darkness, the terrifying allure of the main antiheroes and the intense watchability of this piece keeps me on my toes every time I see it.

2) As You Like It: the only Shakespeare with a true heroine at its core, As You Like It is an ode to the non-ingenue young woman. Liberated from the court that ties down so many other Shakespearean characters, those in As You Like It are free to frolic gaily in the woods and fall madly in love at a moment's notice. They banter sweetly, are not punished for pretention or simplicity and live in a world where one can write poetry on trees and break spontaneously into song. Depth and profundity live in a pretty pastoral box that brings the audience happiness against all odds.

1) King Lear: so much to say, so little space. Perhaps one day I will expound upon this, the greatest play I have ever known.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Oh The Thinks You Can Think!

Last weekend BU on Broadway premiered their spring mainstage production: a lighthearted and uplifting musical, a favourite of mine, Seussical. Though plagued with the occasional flaw, the production was for the most part absolutely wonderful and easily one of my favourite things I've seen in my time in Boston.

itself, written by Ahrens and Flaherty, is a joyful romp of a show that leaves you smiling no matter what. Filled with memorable characters like Horton the Elephant and Gertrude McFuzz, beautiful ballads like "Alone in the Universe" and "Solla Sollew" and wonderfully kitschy dialogue that strictly adheres to Dr. Seuss' famous rhyming couplet format, Seussical is really a wonderful play. Right off the bat with the raucously great opening number "Oh The Thinks You Can Think", Seussical inhabits a colourful world filled with cats in hats, sour kangaroos, trouble-making monkeys and birds of a single feather. The world of Seuss is one where the "smallest of small" and the "largest of all" can be friends and anything can happen if you "just think".

If the play has a problem, it's that it significantly longer than the story can support. Though filled with show-stopping wonderful songs like "Oh The Thinks You Can Think", "It's Possible", "Alone in the Universe", "Notice Me, Horton" and "Solla Sollew", Seussical is polluted by no fewer than 32 other musical numbers. Dull duds like "Circus McGurkus" take up time and barely move the plot forward, basically serving as a platform for some of Seuss' quirky but neglected characters to show make their mark on the play. But ultimately, the adorable wonderfulness of Horton, Gertrude and Jojo's journeys overshadows any tedium and keeps the audience on board the cooky coupleted ride of Seussical the Musical.

BU On Broadway's production perfectly encapsulated what Seussical is all about. As directed by the company's resident ingenue Sarah Jill Bashein (whose recent credits include Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Janet in Rocky Horror and Woman #1 in Songs for a New World), Seussical was appropriately bold and colourful, sweet and poignant, goofy but smart. The Seuss illustration-inspired set allowed for great levels and a good sense of location with trees on wheels to represent the Jungle of Nool and little Who houses to be wheeled in when the action moves to Whoville. The costumes were sweet and representational- no wings, no trunks, but rather animal ears and feathered dresses paired with character movement that struck the delicate balance of a personified animal in child-inspired detail. The audio levels needed a little more refining but the orchestra and vocals, music directed by wunderkind Jonathan Brenner, were standout.

Overall, the story and characters were represented well. The choreography, though simple, was beautiful and the lighting stunning. The blocking was well thought-out and the characters well defined.

The crucial role of Horton was played by the always excellent Matt Lerner, who's beautiful tenor voice was in fine form this week alongside his incomparable charm and emotional commitment. Easily one of my favourite performers of the company, Lerner will be missed once he graduates this spring after a run of leading roles including The Baker in Into the Woods, Jimmy in Reefer Madness, Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, Brad in Rocky Horror and Man #2 in Songs for a New World.

Also in fine form was relative newcomer Colleen Martorano who brought great energy to the role of Mayzie LaBird. Jessie Kavanagh's Jojo was charming and well executed, while one of OB's newest superstars Stephanie Gray stole most of the Whoville scenes as Mrs. Mayor with her stunning soprano and never-failing animation. The highlight of the stellar chorus was OB Vice President Matt Cobb in typically enthusiastic fashion.

Tavia Merchant's Sour Kangaroo was brash acting-wise but her vocal chops proved enough to temporarily make you forget to keep breathing. Liz Furze, as Gertrude McFuzz, was one of the few castmembers to struggle with her vocals (much of "All for You" was lost to inaudible high notes) but she was so thoroughly charming and sounded so beautiful on the notes that were in her range that she was still a resounding success in the role.

Basically Seussical comes down to the audience. You can be that person, who sits there and laments every simplistic musical theme, cheap pun or missed note. But if you're not, if you're someone who can enjoy the theatre for all its imperfections, Seussical, especially Bashein's BU On Broadway production, can be the happiest show on earth.

*This article has been edited to exclude a mildly negative mention of a performer who wishes to not appear on the website.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Portrait of a Psychopath"

I have this friend who has played many of Shakespeare's greatest roles, heroes and villains alike. He's tackled Aaron the moor and Richard III, Oberon, Lear and Hamlet among others. But just the other night he said something that struck me as strange, "I've never had any desire to play Mackers". Now, there are jokes to be made here, theme songs to be sung: "call me superstitious or cowardly or meek, but I'll never play a character who's name one dare not speak... I'd be crackers to take on Mackers, you see I'm skittish about the Scottish Tragedy" and Slings and Arrows episodes to be quoted . But it's the very same darkness that Slings and Arrows attributes to Macbeth that intimidated him.

Our beloved television show spends much of season 2 wallowing in the play's darkness. They call it "a portrait of a psychopath", say it's "extraordinarily difficult to stage effectively" and revel in it's infamous curse. They call the character a tyrant, label the play as overly bloody and present the idea that it teaches the audience nothing. When Geoffrey suggests a bit of stage business that would create pathos for the character, identify him as human and vulnerable, he is given seemingly endless grief for it.

But I think Geoffrey's right. I think Macbeth is human and vulnerable. If not deserving of pathos then at least recognizable in his vulnerability to darkness. I think the most powerful Macbeths are good guys, ambitious and flawed but good nonetheless. The play is all the more scary for every bit of themselves an audience member can find in Mackers.

As for the suggestion that Macbeth is a uniquely bloody play, it's really not that accurate. Sure, blood is a recurring allusion, a metaphor for so much that comes back in the text scene after scene. But in terms of body count Macbeth isn't that bloody, or disturbing in terms of what gets done. Let's start with regicide, the atrocious murder at the center of the play: it happens offstage, and there are shockingly few Shakespeare plays in which the king isn't killed. Then there's a pretty standard murder: Banquo, followed by two more shocking ones in the innocent Lady Macduff and her son. Then there's a little off-stage suicide (Lady M), a battle death (Young Siward) and the final triumphant beheading (Macbeth himself). Though atrocious and incredibly meaningful in terms of character development and personal/political ramifications, these deaths lack an element of the grotesque that permeates so much of Shakespeare's work. If Macbeth is "a portrait of a psychopath", how come the raping and maming happens in Titus Andronicus? Richard III threatens one child and kills two more for power. Othello smothers his innocent wife out of blind rage. Lear has eye-gouging! Macbeth is a dark play, full or murder and death, but it's certainly not uniquely so.

Finally, by definition, psychopaths are lacking in remorse and guilt. Macbeth is almost entirely based on remorse and guilt. Even before he panics and gets even more blood on his hands, Macbeth is haunted by the murder he commits. It tears at him, drives him to the brink of sanity and is his eventual downfall. You want to talk psychopath, let's talk Othello's Iago, about whom another friend and I had a long conversation the other day in which we realized that much like the Joker (from Batman), Iago just wants to watch the world burn. He gives ever-changing explanations for his behaviour, unable to land on a single honest and sympathetic motivation for the havoc he wreaks. Or what about Titus Andronicus' Aaron, who repeats over and over that his only regret is not having committed a thousand more crimes. Or King Lear's Edmund, Reagan or Goneril who's crimes are perpetrated against their own fathers, the people who are supposed to love them the most. Of all Shakespeare's villains, I would argue that Macbeth is disturbingly human and scarily relatable instead of psychopathic.

Instead of criticizing it for its darkness, Macbeth should be praised for its affecting intensity. It's terrifying, challenging and emotionally draining. Instead of listening to Oliver and Nahum's assertion that the play is "a portrait of a psychopath", if we're looking to Slings for the key to what Macbeth is all about, I think we should listen to Geoffrey. He said that Macbeth is a man and about the play itself and the process of tackling it, he said "There will be struggle. There will be sacrifice. There will be tears, there will be the occasional fistfight. And in the end, there will be transformation" and that, to me, seems like something worth braving the curse for.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Something You Should Read

 Readers of this blog may notice a pattern. We at My Theatre are very fond of quoting, referencing and generally expressing our love for something called Slings & Arrows. In case this has confused you greatly, I'm here to clear it up. Slings is a Canadian TV show about a Shakespeare company. It's "a comedy about drama" if you will. Starring stage greats Paul Gross, Martha Burns and Stephen Ouimette and based on The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (my personal favourite classical theatre hub worldwide), Slings finds a way to be relevant to almost any Shakespearean discussion that pops up on My Theatre. Luckily for you, My Theatre is part of a larger organization, My Entertainment World, which has a television component far more developed and established than this. My TV is the place to go for the low down on what Slings is all about so Click Here to read and article I wrote on the subject many moons ago (Feb, 08) and read our coming posts with nods of recognition instead of glares of confusion.