Sunday, November 27, 2011

Antony! And Cleopatraaaaa!

I just finished listening to Antony and Cleopatra. I think this represents either my second or third reading of the play. It gets mixed up in my head with All for Love: Or, the World Well Lost by John Dryden, which I wrote a paper on comparing it with Shakespeare's version of the story, specifically Dryden's harmless, assimilated Cleopatra with Shakespeare's orientalized, Other-ed Cleopatra.

This Other-ing is a topic of critical focus for many scholars. Cleopatra comes to represent Egypt, the feminine, darkness, sensuality, licentiousness, things soiled and rotten, the East, etc, while Antony represents Rome, the masculine, light, rationality, sparseness, things clean and fresh, the West, etc. Cleopatra, as the eastern Other, is the force that divides Antony from "himself," meaning, his Roman head-over-heart, war-over-pleasure self. She un-mans him, making him soft and weak, eventually causing his flight from a sea-battle as he pursues her instead of sticking to his metaphorical guns and fighting Octavius Caesar.

I find neither character particularly compelling or sympathetic until around the fourth act. It could be the audio version I heard, which was bad Shakespearean bluster with little to no nuance, but both Cleopatra and Antony seem to be trying to out-do each other with protestations of forever love that seem both unmotivated and uninteresting. Cleopatra is openly manipulative; Antony is vacillating and weak, not at all like the Antony we see at the end of Julius Caesar who wins the crowd with his powerful rhetoric ("and Brutus is an honorable man") and fools the conspirators with a persuasive mixture of lies and honest principle. In Julius Caesar, Antony out-Cleopatras Cleopatra. I wonder if A&C Antony is the same character for Shakespeare as the JC Antony.

They seem as stupid and immature as Romeo and Juliet, only with less reason to be so. The fake death and double suicide is perhaps a reminder of that earlier play and the sense of waste, loss, and extravagant stupidity is hightened by the global relevance these leaders have. When Romeo and Juliet die, it's just two dumb kids; when Antony and Cleopatra dies, their deaths affect nations.

Later in the play, I like them better. Antony runs after Cleopatra even while he's furious at her for leaving and furious at himself for following; this was the only part of the recording where the actors emoted at all, Antony railing at Cleopatra and she begging for his forgiveness. Poor sod, Antony can't even commit suicide well; it's kind of endearing. Cleopatra seems less whiny and manipulative when she is asking her women to drag Antony up to the monument so that he can die with (some) dignity. She's finally doing something, having a tangible and physical effect on someone in the play, rather than stalking around like a wounded cat and playing out her dramatics. When she dies, she dies with dignity, making love to Death and refusing to be Caesar's plaything.

There is a thread in this play, though, which we see in other plays (Macbeth, notably) of a powerful and seductive woman who deprives a man of the power of action, emasculating him while "masculating" herself. Sometimes this is rationalized by other characters as the power of witchcraft, which the woman ostensibly wields over the man; think Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Sometimes the woman herself denies her femininity; Cleopatra says at the end of the play, "I have nothing of woman in me," Lady MacB asks the gods to "unsex [her] here" and take out "the milk of human kindness."

What is "love" in this play? Does Antony love Octavia, or is he lying to her? Did he love Fulvia? How is love expressed? Is love, like Cleopatra's Antony, a "dream"?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Trip to Blackfriars

I went to Staunton, VA, for the second time in 2011 in October, for the Blackfriars Conference on Shakespeare in Performance. IT WAS GREAT!!!!!! (end of post, stop reading)

No, it really was great. And, I bought a rug! So, everything worked out in the end. While I was there, I saw The Tempest, Henry V, and Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe. I also went on a $hakes binge and bought a bunch of cheap recordings of his plays on iTunes, so I listened to Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, and some lectures by an Oxford professor, Emma Smith, on Shakespeare's plays.

I will be writing about all of those performances and "readings" in other posts. Right now, I'm gonna summarize the conference. I took copious notes, so, good on me.

Caroline Lamb discussed how a de-braining might have been performed on stage, noting that Tourneur prompts his audience to expect a brain by using the word seven times in "The Atheist's Tragedy." Some performers make this very bloody and gory, one even showing the audience a chunk of bleeding brain after the execution. She sees this as a "corporeal correlative" to the knowledge that Danville is a traitor--instead of spilling his guts, he spills his brains.

Genevieve Love asks us to consider, in "Alarum for London," if fat is prosthetic. Stump's stump is meant to show an absence, the missing leg, which the actor is not actually missing; the fat burgher is acted by a skinny actor, and his fat belly becomes an addition. In this case, the actor is missing what the role demands. Is a theatrical role more like a paunch or a stump?

We had presentations on paper on stage--how it was used and re-used, and what it signified. We questioned whether Banquo was the 12th or the 13th ghost in the line of kings, concluding that he was probably the 12th, since most acting companies could only support 14 people on stage. We discussed sex acts in Shakespeare--were blowjobs a thing back then, or not?

Alisha Huber gave a really interesting presentation on trumpet calls on stage, with her point being that these calls served as auditory signifiers that the audience would be likely to have recognized from Mile-End drills. They can convey information as complex as nationality and, if a theater company recognizes this and is consistent, an audience can learn to recognize and "read" these sounds as well.

Scott Kaiser gave an awesome speech on the parts of Shakespeare's wordcraft, showing us how to recognize a figure of speech and convey that figure of speech through inhalation, highlighting operative words, choosing a focal point, envisioning an image, and performing an action. He also tells actors to perform the subtext by showing us when a character comes to a realization or a decision.

I was really interested in presentations that discussed what an acting company is, or can be, in general. Andrew Phillips-Blasenak studied a particular period at the RSC in which the director chose to nurture a company by changing the audience/actor dynamic, encouraging everyone to have a lead role, and making the directing process collaborative.

There were presentations about the necessity, or non-necessity, of certain props; about schtick in Shakespeare and how, even if we choose not to have it in the play, having actors use schtick while rehearsing can be a useful tool; a presentation about all the Fletcher plays (hilarious!); early-modern lighting techniques; light and heat in Shakespeare's playhouses; using Shakespearean text in classes for law students; and "what is original practices?"

Finally, I heard two great presentations at a breakout session about Shakespeare in the Classroom. Shirley Kagan, a director, asked us, when using original practices, is the director dead? She said that in a few important ways, directing is not dead. A director is in charge of script selection, cutting, casting, staging, pacing, and arcing (or coming up with a cohesive point of view of the play and organizing the rest around that). And Brian Herek showed us several interesting tools for working with Shakespeare digitally: "Word Hoard," and TAPoR being the most interesting to me.

Yay conferences! Yay note-taking!

The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged

Okay, so it's been a while. Let's talk about why it's been a while: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. This play, written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield in the '80's and updated in 2007, was such a blast to perform. Wil, Dario, and I put it on at the Warehouse in Tallahassee on Nov 4, 5, and 6, with the help of Christina LaRocca, Chris Dickinson, and Steve Adams. And even though it was exhausting and stressful and frankly a little much, I miss it a ton now that it's over. I wish we'd been able to do it more than three times.

The premise of the show is that three actors are going to summarize, through performance, Shakespeare's entire dramatic canon in 90 minutes. The actors, though, are a little inept and unprepared; they mess up, they argue, they forget entire works. So the show becomes a parody of Shakespeare's greatest hits; it completely passes over the comedies as having any artistic merit, plays up the Jewish presence, plays up the sex, and picks out Hamlet as Shakespeare's most iconic work. The whole thing is done as a series of jokes, one long gag . . . and makes Shakespeare out to be the greatest gag-writer ever.

But the show has two moments of pathos. One, when Dario gives the "what a piece of work is man" speech as a fed-up actor trying to prove that Shakespeare is just a bunch of long words that nobody knows (and, thus, proving that the words are "beautiful, man"), and the second when Wil, as Hamlet, delivers his final "the rest is silence" speech as Hamlet. And, among all the comedy, the pathos shines.

Doing this play was so much fun. Wil and Dario and I are going to write our own play, because we had such a great time improvising on this one. And the Warehouse was a gem of a place to perform . . . much better than we had hoped. But I think the thing I come away with from this play is that all of Shakespeare's plays can be performed as comedies, in the modern sense of the word of "comedy" as something funny. All of Shakespeare's plays have hilarious moments, and when you play up the comedy, the tragedy becomes even deeper. Thus saith the Bard: "We shall do it . . . BACKWARDS!"