Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English,
March 15, 2012

It was going to be a long full weekend of Chicago Shakespeare immersion. I knew there was some theater available and that both new Shakespeare movies were playing. I had even mentally drafted the opening line of my subsequent Chips article:

Although I’m no deep lover of Shakespeare films, or even of films generally, my Chicago Shakespeare immersion weekend gave me some ho-hum live theater performances and a transcendent film experience of one of the great, lesser-known Shakespeare plays [i.e., Coriolanus].

It turned out not to be: “Anonymous,” the comic espionage thriller focused on the Shakespeare authorship question, is showing at only one theater in North America – in Calgary, Alberta, Canada – and “Coriolanus,” a highly regarded film about a great play, is now playing in only thirteen U.S. cities, including Minneapolis. If only I had driven north instead of east!

So I was stuck using my three-day-weekend to attend live performances of four Shakespeare plays that are among my least favorite (probably mostly because of over-exposure). Irony: It turned out to be a marvelous weekend that demonstrated once again Shakespeare’s nearly infinite power to stimulate creativity in other artists (that’s my thesis, in case you’re looking).

Here, in order of preference:

“The Taming of the Shrew”

It’s not quite clear why the producers thought that this play about the gender wars would be a good choice for a “Shakespeare For the Schools” series. Even with considerable cutting and good-feeling pitches for mutuality in marriage, the play still felt mostly like the subjugation of a woman of spirit. But the audience was engaged and it was worth being there just to hear this short conversation between an awkward-looking teenage boy and a sophisticated-looking older woman who looked like she might be his aunt:

Woman: So what did you think of it? I promise I won’t tell anyone.

Boy: I was really surprised. I had no idea Shakespeare could be funny.

“The Tempest”

The number of lines and the small number of characters--twenty or so – make “The Tempest” one of Shakespeare’s smallest plays. Reducing it to three characters and an hour might therefore seem a redundancy. But this portrayal of Prospero’s obsessions was surprisingly effective. The play’s iconic figures Ariel and Caliban were Prospero’s slaves who he forced to repeatedly act out, sometimes with puppets, sometimes with masks and sometimes with elaborate props used on a stage-sized T-shaped table, the original play’s – and life’s – most basic relationships: daughter abandoning father for love, brother betraying brother for power, servant fleeing master for liberty. This was a Tempest all about loss and power, and Prospero carried a huge battle axe to prove it. A reductive version of the play, then, but magically inventive set, props and acting.

“Midsummer Night’s Dream”

This was an extravagant production that took that title word “Dream” seriously.

A cigar-smoking Freud look-alike introduced the play, transformed himself into a spritish, bald Puck with large female breasts and prominent male genitalia, and led us into the phantasmagoric netherworld where our desires and anxieties play themselves out with full abandon. The play ended in an unabashed love fest. But the story itself was more complex: it’s been a long time since “A MND” has brought me near laughing tears (the Mechanicals’ performance, of course) and melancholy tears (when Thisbe, played by a very masculine black male, sang a bluesy Appalachian folk song over Pyramus’s dead body; and when the aggressive Amazon Queen Hippolyta notices the actor Bottom and recalls at some deep subliminal level her alter-ego Hippolyta’s love affair with Bottom in an ass’s head – a sudden glance of sadness at the rich life we leave behind when we awake into our daily rational selves. As Caliban says so poignantly in “The Tempest,” “When I waked, I cried to dream again.”

Romeo and Juliet

The original “Romeo and Juliet” requires nearly twenty actors to fill the play’s forty-some roles. So how good could a production be that is done by four inexperienced, barely out-of-college male actors? Fabulous, it turns out. The production was actually “Joe Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R & J,” a rather creaky frame-play in which young boys in a Catholic school find self-expression and liberation by clandestinely performing Romeo and Juliet (Ok, the irony is nice: millions of kids every year suffer terminal boredom because they’re death-reading a play that is supposedly about them; for these four boys, it’s illicit fruit, partly because the slight, doe-eyed young man playing Juliet gets to passionately kiss his Romeo).

The theater held 31 seats, the stage was a bare 15’ x 15’ platform, and the only prop was a 20’ sheath of red cloth that served as the friar’s stole, a mother’s shawl, the nurse’s apron, and as sword, poison and prayer book. Conclusion: Although the other three performances had some interesting special-effects, this spare “Romeo and Juliet” proved once again that theater is, essentially, actors embodying words. And when the words are this good, and the actors receptive enough, that’s all the spectacle one needs to feel alive again.