Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 10
Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer
Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.
VOLUME 10: JULY 22, 2020: FREE SHAKESPEARE
The late Harold Bloom – the greatest literary critic since Johnson – famously insisted that nobody understood what it meant to be human better than Shakespeare did. I agree. Shakespeare speaks to our own moment – #MeToo and Black Lives Matter emphatically included – better than any other playwright, living or dead. He’s 400 years behind us, but he’s simultaneously always ahead of us. He always will be, with insights that extend far beyond where and when he lived.
“There was never anything especially British about William Shakespeare” writes Andrew Dickson, in his fascinating book about how and why Shakespeare is loved, taught, and performed all over the world. That’s why Globe Theatre Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole could write a compelling narrative about touring Hamlet, proving anew that this 400-year-old play can touch the lives of people in the nearly 200 countries the tour visited. And that’s why the traveling troupe of artists featured in Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s terrific novel about life in a world decimated by plague, keep the flame of civilization alive by playing Beethoven and performing Shakespeare.
Here’s Saheem Ali, raised in Kenya and directing a predominantly BIPOC cast in the outstanding, just-released radio production of Richard II I discuss below: “The word universal is so loaded,” Ali said, introducing this Richard II, which the cast dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. “But there is something to the fact that this guy’s plays are being done all over the world, in multiple languages and multiple cultures. It has the power to transcend. It’s not about this British guy. It’s not owned by him or them.”
“Shakespeare means freedom,” contends Ewan Fernie, in his stirring book on this theme. “That is why the plays matter, and not just aesthetically but also in terms of the impact they historically have had and can continue to have on personal and political life in the world . . . Freedom in Shakespeare is also a struggle between characters and from play to play over what freedom means. And it is a struggle that is played out time and again in the life and lives, and progressive political movements, which Shakespeare has stimulated or inspired.”
Perhaps John Douglas Thompson, playing York in the-above referenced Richard II, best captures how Shakespeare has helped me through this landmark moment in American history, as we wrestle with the twin pandemics of biological disease and the disease of racism. Explaining the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare, Thompson (who is Black) said that “Shakespeare was a life raft for me in handling my emotions about all the stuff that’s going on, about systemic racism, about living in a pandemic.”
It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s persistent and pervasive influence that even though I’m dedicating this entire volume of picks to current opportunities for experiencing his work, I’m only scratching the surface of what’s currently out there for free listening and viewing (true to the spirit embodied in Shakespeare in the Park, and consistent with the meaning of a writer who wrote for everyone rather than the nobs trying to hold Shakespeare hostage, every pick below is currently available for free).
I’d love to hear from you regarding your own experiences during the pandemic with Shakespeare. Perhaps they’ll be the result of some of the productions I list below. Or maybe you’ll share with me other productions you’ve come across this summer and enjoyed.
Or you might choose to share memories of summers past, spent under the stars up the hill at American Players Theatre. In Stratford, Ontario or in southern Utah. In Ashland or Winona. On tour with a traveling troupe in Montana or among Wisconsin’s own Summit players. In southern Illinois or Southwark, Alabama or northern California, Central Park or the Shenandoah Valley, Door County or downtown Milwaukee. In any one of these or the countless other hallowed grounds where Shakespeare is the sound of summer – changing lives and expanding what it means to be human, one spellbinding performance at a time.
First, from Milwaukee Repertory Theater, here’s a warm-up for watching Stratford’s production of Romeo and Juliet (pick 2, below), featuring N’Jameh Camara (directed by Dawn Monique Williams) channeling Mercutio’s gorgeous Queen Mab monologue: WATCH
Second, courtesy of the Public Theater, Hamlet meets Black Lives Matter in this moving version of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy: WATCH
Selections for Volume Ten (citations and links for all selections are also included as endnotes):
1. Tyranny and its Discontents (PBS; Public Theater; American Players Theatre): In his recent Tyrant: Shakespeare and Politics, Stephen Greenblatt demonstrates how Shakespeare told tales of tyrants before his time as a means of commenting on the (ab)use of power in his own; similarly, Greenblatt suggests, Shakespeare’s plays can help us make sense of the tyrants who (mis)rule us. Three currently available Shakespeare plays, each using a different medium and all involving the overthrow of a tyrant, offer a fascinating cross-section of Shakespeare’s views on when and how the people might be justified in replacing their leaders by any means necessary – as well as the price they potentially pay when they do.
Filmed in 2009, Rupert Goold’s bloody Macbeth – which suggests the resistible rise of Ceauşescu and Stalin – had two acclaimed runs on stage in Britain and two more in New York, culminating in Tony nominations for Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as the Macbeths. While the surrounding sound and fury of this production won’t signify for everyone, Stewart’s line readings offer all the reason one needs to watch (I have more to say about Stewart in pick 5 below). And Fleetwood is among the many others in this cast who is pretty great, too. This Macbeth is free at PBS through 2020.
Consumed by power, Macbeth loses his humanity; relinquishing power, Richard II finds his. Relinquishing its own planned Central Park production of Richard II, the Public Theater thereby found its way to its game-changing radio production of the play – starring a mellifluous André Holland (Moonlight) – that I referenced in my introduction above. Presented through four hour-long podcasts that also include moving and insightful interviews confirming how fully Richard II speaks to our own moment, the Public’s well-designed production suggests what APT’s crackerjack company of classically trained, text-driven actors could do, through radio productions of their own. Director Tim Ocel rightly suggests as much, in the talkback to the APT production I include as pick 4 below. Here’s hoping.
Speaking of APT: the limitations of Zoom technology are readily apparent in its current online production of Julius Caesar, part of APT’s six-play Out of the Woods festival which I first described in Volume 3 (all six plays remain free through this Sunday, July 26 at the PBS Wisconsin website). I’d still recommend tuning in for Jim DeVita’s introspective portrait of Brutus as a reluctant crusader and Tracy Michelle Arnold’s sensitive rendering of a Cassius who is not just lean and hungry but also needy and lonely (Arnold would be a great Henry IV in a play which, like Richard II, is long overdue for a return to APT’s stage). Incidentally, a great supplement to this production is James Shapiro’s account of the politically controversial 2017 Central Park production of Julius Caesar with which he begins and ends his riveting Shakespeare in America, a book I referenced in Volume 1 (link above) of these weekly picks.
2. #MeToo, Canadian Style (Stratford Festival): The final two productions in the Stratford Festival’s extraordinary gift over the past three months of 12 expertly filmed Shakespeare productions are Romeo and Juliet (streaming for free through July 30) and The Taming of the Shrew (streaming for free through August 6). Both do what Stratford regularly does so well: honoring the text Shakespeare wrote while ensuring it speaks truth to power about the way we live now.
Romeo and Juliet
Director Scott Wentworth’s 2017 production of Romeo and Juliet expands the frame from the play’s young lovers to indict the world making their love impossible; Wentworth emphasizes the macho culture in which women are reduced to property.
Yes: that means exciting swordplay. But it also reminds us that it’s women as well as brawlers like Mercutio who pay the price. One innocent female bystander is slashed in the face during this production’s opening brawl. The sexual harassment of women like the Nurse has never been uglier. The play’s chorus is presented as a collection of widows, dressed in black and silently mourning what they see.
The Taming of the Shrew
Similarly focused on the constricting power of patriarchal ritual, director Chris Abraham gleefully blows it up in his 2015 production of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s rollicking fun while also making a point, driven home by real-life marrieds Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay –challenging each other and all of us to think harder about the gender politics in our relationships.
“By the time Hay delivers the notoriously difficult speech at play’s end in which Katherina proclaims Petruchio her lord and her life, I was close to tears,” I wrote in my review, anticipating what happened to me a second time upon watching the film this week. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, this Katherina and Petruchio are liberated from their misogynistic, hidebound society. Conspiring together, they exaggerate and deconstruct its ridiculous rules, thereby saving themselves.
3. Summer of Love (American Players Theatre; Milwaukee Repertory Theater; Public Theater): Two years removed from its 2018 production of As You Like It, American Players Theatre is traveling virtually back to the Forest of Arden. Several APT actors – including Melisa Pereyra as Rosalind – revisit their 2018 roles (David Daniel and Colleen Madden reprise their show-stealing turns as Touchstone and Audrey in APT’s 2010 production). And while Zoom is no substitute for live stage performance, this production allows actors like Pereyra to add new dimensions to what they’d presented on stage; Pereyra herself notes during an informative talkback to this 2020 production that certain moments play far differently when transferred to camera. Her 2020 edition of Rosalind is more vulnerable, and the chemistry (can we call it that, on Zoom?) between her and Nate Burger’s Orlando gives an entirely new dimension to their roleplaying as lovers.
As You Like It
Consider APT’s As You Like It as a warm-up for the first installment of Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s REPlay Play Club, a 90-minute monthly discussion facilitated by Milwaukee Rep’s Artistic and Education staff. The inaugural session on July 30 (2 pm CDT) will feature As You Like It; an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, set in the 1960s and prominently featuring the Beatles, is part of Milwaukee Rep’s 2020-21 season. RSVP by July 28 to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespearean romance will also be in the air from July 24 through September 11, when PBS and the Public bring back last summer’s all-Black production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, choreographed by Camille A. Brown, and featuring Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black) and Grantham Coleman (Buzzer, The Americans) as Beatrice and Benedick. Set in Atlanta in 2020, this Much Ado isn’t about color-blind casting, but rather a color-conscious invocation of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, as refracted through Shakespeare’s brilliantly funny dialogue. Here’s a trailer capturing how exciting this play (and this production!) are: WATCH
4. An Improbable Fiction (American Players Theatre): The Juliet who stumbles into Boar’s Head Tavern in Jim DeVita’s wonderful world premiere, which concludes APTs Out of the Woods festival, may be a character in an already written Shakespeare play. But she’s not buying the idea that she must forever stick to her prescribed lines rather than evolving as an actor and person – much as Pereyra herself has in the six years since she played Juliet in an APT production DeVita directed. Shakespeare’s characters are always growing, as made clear by this 2020 Juliet – along with this play’s Falstaff (Brian Mani), Mistress Quickly (Sarah Day), Othello (Gavin Lawrence), Cleopatra (Tracy Michelle Arnold), and Messenger (Nate Burger; Tim Gittings is also present as the narrator).
Ostensibly set during one of the many outbreaks of plague that closed theaters in Shakespeare’s day, An Improbable Fiction also suggests our current pandemic; freely borrowing lines from other Shakespeare characters much as the Bard himself borrowed plots, each of these characters assumes dimensions and texture that extend (while remaining consistent with) their respective originals. Confronting the meaning of love and the specter of death, the value of friendship and the sometimes curse of solitude, they drive home what any encounter with Shakespeare makes clear: his plays and characters speak to our moment. Containing multitudes, they expand and change, lighting the future even as they reflect the past.
Marking the passing of time, many of the actors in this production have previously played the characters they embody, here. Watching someone like Arnold – magnificent as Cleopatra in two prior APT productions of Cleopatra – allows us to travel backward toward the past. Seeing her next to Pereyra – who will surely play Cleopatra someday – lights the way to the future. Both in time and beyond it, DeVita’s play is as moving as Lauren Gunderson’s similarly themed The Book of Will – and, in the ways it tweaks Shakespeare’s lines, equally life-affirming (it’s no accident that An Improbable Fiction revolves around Mani’s Falstaff, who can even bend Prince Hal and some of his most infamous lines).
The Book of Will was the best production at APT last year, much as DeVita’s play is the best of the productions in APT’s Out of the Woods festival this year. The incredible Tim Ocel – who has done as much as any director over the past decade to deepen my appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare’s comedies – directed both. Here’s hoping we see an Ocel-directed production of DeVita’s play on stage in Spring Green in the years to come.
Long before he became Captain Picard or Professor Xavier, Patrick Stewart was an acclaimed Shakespearean actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company; some of his more recent stage and film work involving Shakespeare (including his turn as Macbeth, in the production referenced in pick 1) will live forever. Lucky us, then, that Stewart is sharing regular readings from Shakespeare’s sonnets, a project which commenced after his reading of Sonnet 116 in March went viral.
Sonnet 116 suggests that love lasts forever, with the existence of the sonnet itself embodying this truth; hearing this great actor read it to us in the frightening early days of the pandemic still stands for me as one of the great beacons of light in this long darkness we’re enduring. Stewart’s line readings are so good that even the most difficult of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – and Stewart isn’t shy about telling us that some are hard, even for him – become clear.
Everyone will have their favorites among those read thus far; not counting that original reading of Sonnet 116, one of mine is Stewart’s reading of Sonnet 71, in which he greets us from a flickering fire and confronts his mortality and legacy. It’s a vintage Shakespearean moment from a legendary Shakespearean actor: signaling the end of time, it offers an intimation of immortality.
References (in order of mention):
* Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead, 1998)
* Andrew Dickson, World’s Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (Henry Holt, 2015)
* Dominic Dromgoole, Hamlet, Globe to Globe: Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play (Grove, 2017)
* Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014)
* Evan Fernie, Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter (Cambridge, 2017)
* William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Queen Mab monologue; performed by N’Jameh Camara and directed by Dawn Monique Williams; Milwaukee Repertory Theater):
* William Shakespeare, Hamlet (To be, or not to be soliloquy; performed by more than two dozen Black theater artists; Public Theater):
* Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (Norton, 2018)
* William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Rupert Goold directing; PBS):
* William Shakespeare, Richard II (Public Theater):
* William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (APT Out of the Woods):
* James Wood, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (Penguin, 2020)
* William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Stratford Festival):
* William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew (Stratford Festival):
* William Shakespeare, As You Like It (American Players Theatre):
* Milwaukee Repertory Theater Play Club, rsvp: email@example.com.
* William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing (trailer):
* James DeVita, An Improbable Fiction (American Players Theatre):
* William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 (read by Patrick Stewart): https://vimeo.com/44793685
* William Shakespeare, Sonnets (read by Patrick Stewart): https://twitter.com/sirpatstew