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Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?
Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.

Much Ado About Nothing is a joke. That is, the title is a pun. It’s like the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and George pitch a show to some TV execs, who ask what the show is supposed to be about. Nothing?! Who would watch that? In Shakespeare’s day matters of the heart (and the comedies that represent them) are trivial, light, ephemeral business that don’t deserve too much attention. Somebody sings, there are dancers — and yet when kids are in love they get so serious about it! Romeo and Juliet is tragic precisely because the play started out as a comedy, but rather than getting over the teen-angst, high school drama and getting on to getting it on, the characters end up killing each other. It’s like My So Called Life all of a sudden morphs into The Wire.

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Lindsay Teed and Anna Marie Sell as Viola and Olivia

“Be not afraid of greatness” is the advice Malvolio gets from an anonymous letter in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Our officious, comedic villain hopes the greatness of his mistress Olivia will be thrust upon him, a thought that tickles him in all the wrong places. Ever ready to put a subordinate in his place or flatter his betters, when he sees the opportunity to move up the social ladder a rung or two Malvolio exults in the thought that he could be better than he is.

The idea that you can be better than you are was laughable to the play’s Elizabethan audience. You were born into your place; you stay in your place; and morality consists of being faithful to who you are. People act immorally when they put on airs, or act beneath their station. We laugh at the type of fool Malvolio represents in hopes that public scorn will teach him a lesson in humility. It’s an important lesson to learn, because those who don’t learn it turn into tyrants and / or corpses.

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Jude Law contemplates existence as Hamlet

“Don’t call it a comeback!” ~ LL Cool J

LL was all of twenty-two (22) years-old when he wrote that line. But consider that he had his first hit when he was seventeen, and that in Showbiz! time you can be on top of the world one moment and two celebrity-seconds later, shallow, unscrupulous producers are trying to cast you in a D-list celebrity reality show.

Now consider the case of Mr. Jude Law, who was considered one of the “10 most bankable stars” of 2006 (along with Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks), and who in 2009 tells Sarah Lyall of the New York Times, “to be honest, I don’t know what I’ll do after this. I have no films planned. I haven’t been hugely inspired by what’s come my way in the film industry lately, and this has opened up my eyes to how great roles can be, and how great acting can be.” Do I smell a whiff of desperation? (Did I mention that St. Jude is the patron of lost causes?)

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Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth with their little stillborn demon child

October 1st, 2009

Macbeth is appropriate to autumn and October. Macbeth’s colors are red and black; the poetry evokes the lengthening of nights and shortening days; and it’s full of witches and ghosts. Pecfect for the month of Halloween! I went with Lesterhead to see Strike Anywhere and ANITYA’s joint production of “Macbeth Variations II” at the Irondale Center in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on Lafayette and South Oxford St. in Fort Greene tonight. The production definitely set the mood for a spooky October.

There are a few things you might want to know before you go see the play. First, Strike Anywhere and ANITYA are based in New York and Paris respectively. It is performed in both English and French. Unfortunately the Irondale Center, unlike the Met, doesn’t provide subtitles in glowing green LED in the banquette in front of you. For those who either know French or know the text of Macbeth or both, this isn’t an issue. If you speak English but not French and don’t know the play well, it can be confusing. Second, this is an interpretation of Macbeth, not a staging of Shakespeare’s play. If you get upset when directors cut the Bard’s plays, you definitely won’t like this. Third, the philosophy of the joint company prioritizes improvisation. As they say on their website, it’s never the same play two nights in a row. If you love surprises and don’t mind the occasional sour note that’s great; if flat moments take you out of the action, you might be disappointed. On the other hand, if the classics bore you but you feel compelled to get cultured anyway, this production is both edgy and old skool.

I would give you my take with no chaser, but I happened to overhear a conversation as I was walking out of the theater that I think says it all about what this show accomplishes. Three men, all in their mid-20s, were walking ahead of me on the sidewalk as we left the theater, and this is what I heard. (I’ve given them names. If this is you, and I gave you the wrong name, email the blog’s administrator.)

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Merch of V actors in Q and A

The Propeller company cast doing Q & A after the show

Last Thursday some of the Propeller company’s all-male cast sat down with the audience to discuss their production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The last time I saw the Propeller company was two years ago when they did Midsummer Night’s Dream and Taming of the Shrew in repertory at BAM. The Taming production highlighted the text’s sexual violence by by playing on LGBT domestic violence issues. Petruchio as an abusive boyfriend just seems scarier when it’s a big, butch, swaggering cowpoke beating up on a skinny, emo boy. Or maybe they were reading too much into a cute, human story of a man teaching his new wife to be respectful. Either way, it was powerful — that is to say good theater — and good theater is always interesting.

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I went to check out Oskar Eustis’s production of Hamlet last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The skies threatened rain all day, and finally delivered just as the play was about to start. It misted more or less heavily until I left, which was thirty minutes into the show.

I kind of feel bad for the actors. They’re the ones who have to suffer the brunt of shame when things go bad. On the other hand, a sense of self-preservation is necessary in all living things. If you can tell things aren’t going right, it’s your responsibility to take up the slack. And Shakespeare isn’t boring! If people are bored the text is not the problem — it’s the production. Hamlet is, in my opinion, the hardest role — ever — for an actor. Hamlet’s indecision has to be rendered by an actor with incredibly strong instincts for nuance and timing or it comes across as mere confusion.

The obvious and avoidable screw ups — when Hamlet forgot his lines in hist first scene, or when Polonious (played by Sam Waterson) got so off track in Act II, scene i you could hear crickets chirping — that I can blame on the weather. But some problems were in the production concept, and those problems aren’t going away even after the rain clears up.

Michael StuhlbargHamlet is definitely not a he-man or a “decider“. When Claudius tells him in the second scene that his grief for his father is “unmanly” he tells us, the audience, that Hamlet is going to have a crisis of heroism. I was no fan of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet for this very reason: Hamlet is a sensitive boy. But casting Michael Stuhlbarg as the dithering Dane made Hamlet into Alvy Singer, a neurotic bumbler who tosses out one-liners like a borscht belt comedian.

Sam Waterson played Polonius, and as I said above, the rain may have had something to do with his inability to deliver his lines. It could also have been because Richard Easton was originally cast for the part (though in the program Waterson credited as Polonius). Did they have a last minute personnel switch-up? Is this a sign that Eustis’s ship has leaks?

The biggest problem with the show was the direction, which is a little surprising considering Eustis’s reputation. All the actors from the bit-player guards to our hero decided to convey the intensity of tragedy by yelling, from the first scene where Francisco and Bernardo see the ghost to Hamlet’s first soliloquy. If there is one iron-clad rule that all directors who tackle Shakespeare must follow, it is to let the poetry do the work and restrain the actors’ desire to over act. Ironically Shakespeare dramatizes this fundamental truth in Act III, scene ii with the “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it” speech:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and—as I may say—whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness. O! it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o’er-doing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.”

Pray you, Mr. Eustis, tell your actors this. They start the play by shouting, and have no other means to increase the dramatic tension than by increasing the volume of their voices.