Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Enter stage left.

I’ve never been a professional in the world of theater arts. Plenty of ancillary experience via amateur investments of time …yielding a comparable level of skill.

In other words, I’m a dabbler, not a master.

Not even an apprentice.  The closest I’ve come to above-amateur theater involvement (with people who know what they’re doing) is painting a floor at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville a couple years ago. Or that time my friend/actor John stepped in to fill a role abandoned by one of my actors a few days before we opened And Then There Were None. I believe John himself represented more theater experience than the entire cast, crew, and director (me) collectively. (Thus, my most stressful directing gig.)

But my dabbling took me fairly deep, way further than my lack of training warranted. Deep enough to walk the boards in Hamlet (photos to prove it), delve into Beatrice’s lines in Much Ado About Nothing (photos for that too) while directing the faculty and student cast (what was I thinking?), and develop creative settings for the three very different worlds contained within A Midsummer Night’s Dream — twice. Not to mention countless hours of teaching Shakespeare to (un)willing adolescents (always a pleasure).

Who has two thumbs and can sell a group of 6th graders on Hamlet? This chick.

"Thrift, thrift, Horatio!"
“Thrift, thrift, Horatio!”

Tartuffe taught me that unrhymed iambic pentameter beats couplets any day (yay for the RSC translation of Moliere to rescue us from 2 hours of sing-song!).  Moliere’s biting satire of religious hypocrisy also taught me that no matter how many times you explain it, not everyone will appreciate why the dirty, ugly, crass, and mean characters in literature are absolutely necessary to telling a proper story. That’s how bad we humans are, really. So don’t tell me you‘re too good to play one of those people. You are one of those people.

I loved adapting short stories for the stage. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia fables lent themselves well to some delightful scenes, as did Greek mythology and Edgar Allan Poe. I really loved it when my students had the chance to do their own adaptations for in-house class performances. Few courtroom dramas can beat Atticus Finch examining Mayella in To Kill a Mockingbird when presented as a two-person scene. And somewhere out there is a grown boy who may still have nightmares about the time his 3rd grade teacher brought him to see a couple brothers in my class act out Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”  Poor drunken sot (the character, not the 3rd grader) met a rough end. (Sorry, kid. I hope the nightmares have stopped.)

Of course, you can’t do anything without pissing off someone, not if you take any stab at real style or interpretation.

The complaint reel started early for us once we started doing theater with students:
theater is too hard,
too time-consuming,
too feminine (what?!),
too literary and not STEM,
requires after-school commitments,
forces shy kids to do something they don’t want to do,
forces non-artsy kids into what they don’t want to do,
forces athletes to work around something else in their schedule,
exposes young minds to adult themes too early,
doesn’t expose the kids to “good-enough” literature (we must be looking at you, Poe),
contains swear words,
contains characters who do “bad things” and we don’t want to talk about that.

8d97fce0e3d8f133ebc878793e97816fe31552dcfb30871a9753eb6f0f39aba2Too dark,
too serious for the second graders,
too hard of language for the elementary kids (Shakespeare),
and above all —
TOO MUCH TIME NOT DOING SERIOUS WORK LIKE WRITING PAPERS AND READING CHAUCER.

Despite the constant litany of complaints about why theater was a waste of time, truth is we all got so much out of it.

I miss directing sometimes. I miss getting to imagine a setting for a complex story and installing artistic signposts to lead the viewers through the tale without losing them.

I miss watching actors grow up and out into fascinating versions of people who were formerly 2D lines on a page.

I love the lessons that hit home weeks after a show closes or in rehearsal or sometimes mid-sentence in a performance when you suddenly realize why you’re saying a particular line.

Directing is like someone took project organization and cross-bred it with creativity and storytelling, with a large dose of behavioral science and management theory.

So, consider this my ode to a romanticized memory of directing, one that forgets the ridiculous amounts of work and focuses instead on all the awesome.  Hats off, theatre. I hope we get back together again someday. Forgive me while I take a brief walk down memory lane:

NF_TTH_onlineThe featured image for this post is a promotional still shot from the 2008 NCS performance of the play Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe by Eric Coble. We shot this image inside the pitch-black gym/auditorium. I think it turned out rather well, and it made for a cool poster too after it was edited, one of a series of four. Hey, we might have been a tiny school with zero budget, but we could rock the PR machine. 

 

Hamlet shirt redux

I rabbit-trailed into tweaking the one shirt design of mine on Zazzle that consistently sells a few shirts each year.

That and my WWTD (What Would Tartuffe Do?) mug, a personal favorite ironic joke of mine.

Anyway, the 2007 NCS production of Hamlet was a high point in my experience working with high school theater, and I love to see the cast shirts walking around on the bodies of NCS graduates.

at the Marine museum near Quantico, VA.  Looking fierce. And Hamlet.
Trying out a soldiers pack at the Marine museum near Quantico, VA. Looking fierce. And Hamlet.

Mine, a long-sleeved edition, comes out every fall once the weather turns chilly. It’s getting a bit tattered, so maybe I should order a reprint. (Zazzle doesn’t seem to offer quite the same quality of ink as it did in the past, but it’s the only way to print transparent .png graphics on a shirt without going through a whole bunch of rigamarole to get a similar design ready for a screen printing.)

It’s an old design, and ham-handed. I can’t say that I’m proud of this design, per se, but it was one of my earliest (and in collaboration with a fellow artist), and represents one of my early steps in developing an understanding of the digital tools.

So.  If you have a hankering to remember Hamlet at NCS, try this.

And I suggest adding a great Hamlet quote to the back — mine reads “There is a divinity that shapes man’s ends, rough-hew them how we will,” a line from Act V.

 

Hamlet Shirt Redux
Hamlet Shirt Redux by loriramey
Find other Hamlet T-Shirts at zazzle.com

A Hamlet for the looney bin

I love Hamlet.

Really, it’s an addiction. I’ll take Hamlet in nearly any form. I prefer good Hamlet, but I’ll even put up with a mediocre Hamlet just to hear those lines come out of the mouths of people up on their feet acting them out.   I like film Hamlets, live Hamlets outside in the park, college shows, professional shows, even classroom scene cuttings and random student “adaptations” that leave me wondering how the Dane ended up on Mars with a robot Ophelia and a dog. (I made that up, but I bet someone somewhere has done it.)

If you count the NCS production of Hamlet that led me to read the play several times, assistant direct it, learn the part of Gertrude, teach the play to 25+ students, discuss it at length during the show, and watch the play, oh, 30 times at least? during rehearsals, plus 4 performances (peeking out from the back entrance curtain) …. I’ve seen this play a lot.

So when I stumbled across the news that actor Richard Willis would play Claudius in an edgy adaptation of Hamlet at USC in April, I dropped everything, arm-twisted the husband into clearing his schedule, and fretted all weekend that they might sell out before I could rob the box office of 2 tickets to the show.

Photo by USC.  Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.
Photo by USC. Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.

Now, don’t misunderstand my love of Hamlet for an indiscriminate wanton willingness to love every bastardization of the Bard’s finest.  Hamlet offers such rich material that you can botch it pretty badly yet the story will survive and it’s probably still worth your time, even if you had to cringe in several places.  So after reading a little about USC’s production design, I knew this would be too controversial to remain on the fence.

Robert Richmond, who’s worked with Folger in DC and headed the Aquila Shakespeare Company, helmed this production. That’s how Richard Willis ended up on board to play Claudius, supported by a strong cast of MFA and theater undergrads at USC.

They decided to set the production in an insane asylum. Yup. It’s a crazy idea (haha) but they were hoping to let the setting itself drive home some serious questions about the play’s themes, especially Shakespeare’s shifting perceptions of madness and sanity.

If you REALLY care, check out this mini-preview of the production (if you watch just the first minute, you’ll see a good preview of a scene with Willis)

We “met” Willis in the Warehouse Theater production of The Tempest last fall, which is one of the finest Shakespeare live productions I’ve ever seen.   I’m sure USC was pulling out the marketing machine to get the word out, but honestly the only reason I knew this show was even happening came because Richard Willis posted photos of himself as Claudius on his Facebook page, which I stalk follow.

Photos like this one:

Photo by USC
Photo by USC

Boom. I was hooked.

The Columbia Free Times put up a great review that hooked me in too — you can read a really detailed overview of the production there if you care for like, actual facts.  I’m just rocking the opinions here, with a large dose of memories and nostalgia and Bard-love.

The insane asylum Hamlet production had potential. It really did.  Claudius rocked it, as I expected.  Willis owns the stage and brings all the creepy murderousness that I like to see in Claudius. None of this mamsy-pansy, weak-villain, 1970s-bad-movie-plot, antihero bullshit.

And I gotta give a shout out to the cast, including James Costello as Hamlet, because there were a lot of strong performances. Ophelia went suitably crazy(er); even the dudes who see the ghost in Act 1 Scene 1 kept my attention.   Rosencrantz showed up as a doctor giving Hamlet a physical, which actually worked REALLY WELL.  And they had two guys playing the Ghost, which meant Old Hamlet could totally freak you out by showing up on the other side of the stage supernaturally FAST.

The Ghost spoke through Hamlet, leaving you to wonder whether the whole ghost-dad-thing was a psychosis or a reality. (Old idea but they sold it well.)  Polonius was a lot more sinister than you usually see, implying that he was jealous himself for Ophelia’s sexual attention.  Ok, so that’s creepy and troubled but it’s theater. Everybody has to “do it new”…

But I am troubled.

As a production, USC’s Hamlet delivered some great thrills and chills and atmosphere and  grungy-Victorian-meets-sex-shop costuming. (Corsets and more corsets! I’m surprised the guys weren’t also wearing corsets! They were into straps and belts.)

But it ironed out all the nuance.

(Maybe you can’t have whips, restraints, and insanity AND expect nuance?)

Photo by USC.  Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he's "confessing."
Photo by USC. Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he’s “confessing.”

Claudius was super bad, like ALL THE TIME.  He was bad-ass bad, Irish-gang-tattoo, “I’m gonna eat your face off” kind of bad.  It was amazing during the king’s confession scene, where his thoughts ever “remained below.”

Hamlet’s soliloquies got faster and faster. By the end of “rogue and peasant slave,” I wasn’t sure whether they’d cut the lines down or he’d zipped through it so fast that I’d missed some of my favorites.  The entire second half was like a speed-round.  We couldn’t stop and wonder whether Polonius had it coming or got murdered by a hothead.  We didn’t really think much about how Hamlet took away everything Ophelia cared about, regardless of his intentions.  If you missed the one Elizabethan line about R&G getting axed, you probably missed the question of whether Hamlet wears their blood on his hands too.

By the final scene, the duel (which was a good modernization of the duel, the first I’ve seen…. guns just don’t make sense in that scene at all; Richmond turned it into a knife fight) raced by. Laertes took the cowardly cut to Hamlet’s back (not in the script but nobody ever seems to give Laertes balls in casting or action). The lines explaining Claudius’ poisoned pearl had been cut, so I don’t know how the audience was supposed to follow that Gertrude was drinking poison.

In fact, THAT IS MY BEEF with this production.  If you didn’t already know the story, YOU WERE SCREWED.   The asylum setting offered some cool costume & setting perks, but at the cost to the audience. I bet the actors dug out some amazing character insights (and some of those sparkled through during the production).

But the audience was left to unpack not only 2.5 hours of dense text, and all the deep ideas and universal themes of Shakespeare’s words, they had to figure it out without any context clues for who’s who and how they’re related and what the hell is even. going. on.

The final scene of the show closed with the players returning to the stage (the acting troupe from Act 3) dressed in their comic horror-movie clown attire and drinking the dregs of the poisoned cup while Horatio raced through a couple lines. Hamlet in one breath finished his course on stage — “oh i die horatio this potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit the rest is silence.”  The psycho clowns fell over dead. Horatio looked …sad.  Lights dark.  Applause.

It was like getting hit in the head with a hammer.

But hey. It was Hamlet.

[Wanna see pics from our 2007 Hamlet? Album here]

 

Link: Why Shakespeare always says something new – Telegraph

What Shakespeare always demands, though, is our sympathy, because, to put it simply, he writes about people like us. Offhand, I can think of only one character he wrote – Iago in Othello – that slips through the safety-net of his concern. Shakespeare might not agree with Lear’s sweeping and anarchic assertion that “none does offend”, but he sensed, I think, the danger of easy judgement. He recognises that self-worth and dignity are hard-won and that our lives cannot but be inconsistent, unpredictable, and confused. The only sane response for all of us, perhaps, is to emulate him – to look carefully, to withhold quick judgment and to try to understand.

via Why Shakespeare always says something new – Telegraph.

Ah! Good read!! Read the whole article!!

Reissue: Much Ado About Nothing shirt, Art Deco

Hey all! I noticed that Zazzle has a 30% sale running on shirts today so I decided to refresh the Art Deco-inspired shirt design for NCS’s 2009 Much Ado About Nothing production.  It’s a general design that anyone could wear, and I added one of my favorite Beatrice moments (quotes) on the back for a new ladies’ shirt.

If you’re in the mood to shop, the discount code is SPRINGSFLING (Guys, there are men’s shirt styles available in my store too. )

Ladies' Much Ado shirt , click to see in store
Ladies’ Much Ado shirt , click to see in store

I continue to be surprised at how many strangers buy my Hamlet shirt from 2007. Zazzle has changed their printing process so the design isn’t working for that shirt anymore. I plan to refresh that one next.

The photo at the top of this post is from our production, set in a 1920’s speakeasy (photography by Rebecca Perkins Photography, taken at McGee’s Irish Pub).

A Dark and Stormy Tempest (Theater Review)

You know what you need to be doing this coming weekend?

Seeing The Tempest at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville.

Let me be honest about two things. 1) I love Shakespeare. I really do.  I’m not an expert or even a qualified nerd, but if you put good Shakespeare within reach of me, I’ll go.

2) That said, The Tempest has never been my favorite. I’d seen it live oh, three or four times before this. And while I’d learned to laugh at the fool who gets all tangled up with the weird savage under the blanket, and to wait with delight for “Oh brave new world, to have such people in it!” from the mouth of Miranda, The Tempest never drew me in.

Till now.

Credit: The Warehouse Theatre/Cox Photography
Credit: The Warehouse Theatre/Cox Photography

See, our world is full of technology and wizardry, and we’ve begun to believe that some stories just can’t be told without the power of CGI or at least a big budget Broadway experience.  Shakespeare’s Tempest brings fairies and visions and a magician who doesn’t quite fit our concept of wizard or charlatan. There are foreign kingdoms, people with two or three names, and other difficulties common to the Bard.  But really, when it came down to it, I always got bored somewhere in the middle.

Till now.

Richard Willis as Propsero at the Warehouse Theatre production of The Tempest
Richard Willis as Propsero at the Warehouse Theatre production of The Tempest

As soon as Richard Willis (who plays Propsero & Caliban) opened his mouth on stage and golden, gorgeous words began flowing out (slightly tinged with the sound of a native speaker of the Queen’s English) …. as I saw him begin to stir emotions that run deep and thick inside the heart of Prospero, a father shipwrecked on an island for twelve long years and left to marinate in his own lust for revenge …. I knew this would be a performance to remember.

The director, Robert Richmond (formerly of the Aquila Theater Company and now with the Folger Shakespeare Library) brings to life an incredibly rich telling of this story that in the hands of lesser directors loses its heart in the feeble attempt to make us laugh at the fantasy.

We should know better —  Shakespeare gives us a feast in his best plays, but so many productions insist on gazing only at the sauces.

Richmond’s innovation for this performance is a risky one. Considering the madness and mental anguish that would descend on you or me if we were suddenly exiled from home through betrayal and then stranded “forever” – cut off from all human kindness  and left to raise a child – Richmond chooses to make the savage slave Caliban an alternate personality of Prospero, a Jekyll-Hyde combination that darkens Prospero into a man who can’t hide from the bad parts of his nature.  Likewise, Miranda engulfs inside herself the sprite Ariel.

Perhaps Caliban and Ariel really did exist, and Prospero enchanted them into himself and Miranda through dark magic.

Or perhaps the ragged edges of their sanity tore loose years before anyone else would land on the island to save them. Either way, it’s a much more convincing use of the fantastical.

While the play rolls through a tightly edited (and nimble) telling of the plot twists that result in reconciliation and true love, it is the masterful acting of Willis that grounds this show.  The moment of the “turn” – when Prospero decides that love is a greater power than revenge – set off a powerful wave of choices and emotions to round out the story.

It was an ending packed with a stinger … I was all ready to bounce up with smiles at the curtain call but instead the touching final moments kicked me in the stomach and I had to blink back tears instead. I couldn’t say anything for several moments.  I had to feel my way through the ending before I could process it.

That was Saturday, and I’m *still* thinking about the story, the fulness of its meaning, the depth of Shakespeare’s insight into human nature, the incredible beauty of an actor at his peak and in his element.

For the love of all that is Story, PLEASE buy a ticket RIGHT NOW and see this production.  It’s worth twice what you will pay for it.

Warehouse Theatre offers a dark-hued ‘Tempest’ | The Greenville News | greenvilleonline.com.

This photo was posted to Richard’s Facebook page….. apparently he fell during rehearsal and gashed his arm. The solution was to work his bandage into the costume. I spent most of two hours admiring that rugged detail — a tattered and frayed metaphor for Prospero’s sanity.  Ha! Nope. Just an artistic band aid. 🙂

Richard Willis
Richard Willis