June 3, 2019
Day #9: “Be brief”
You have to know that when a character says that in a Shakespeare play, we’re in for a long explanation.
I’ve been talking about the use of contrasts in Shakespeare’s plays and certainly irony is a kind of contrast. And that’s how we received that instruction last night from the Duke to Egeon at the beginning of COMEDY OF ERRORS. It was great fun that the cast also groaned with us. And we all settled in to hear that long story about how Egeon ends up on Syracuse shores.
Which was clear to me for the first time! I could follow it. And suddenly the stakes of the play made sense.
I’ll talk more about last night’s adventure in a minute, but I want to back up and talk about who came into the “house” yesterday morning. (And by “house”, I mean 440 Lafayette). Mondays, as you know, are double days, and we welcomed in RICHARD II and EDWARD III. Yes, you read correctly: a new play called EDWARD III.
In brief, let me tell you about Ted 3, as Octavio Solis, the translator, affectionately calls it. (I think he means it affectionately, and not ironically….)
It was early in my tenure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (where I eventually stayed for 25 seasons) and I was trying to find my niche. I wasn’t a Shakespeare person by any stretch of the imagination – I came to OSF as the ‘new play girl.’ They had just begun a new play reading series a year or two before I arrived in the mid-90s, and eventually the job of producing the series fell to me.
OSF had also begun to commission new plays. And this series seemed like a great outlet for the development of that work.
Around the same time, when Libby Appel became artistic director in 1995, she brought The Phil Killian Directing Fellowship program with her from Indiana, where she was AD. The idea behind the program is to give early career directors the opportunity to be in residence at OSF for at least four months, and work with two different directors.
Many early career directors cut their teeth on churning out staged readings of new plays, so I knew there was a skill set. But what I wanted to do was give them the experience of working on classic texts. (Which may just mean plays with more than four people in them.)
And so it was that I was in conversation with Trent Jones, the PK during the 1999 season about which classic play he would like to direct for his PK reading. I had just recently read about EDWARD III. It was around this time that Yale University Press published scholar Eric Sams’ edited version of it. And after reading the play and his essay about it, I was intrigued enough to want to hear it. Because I think plays are meant to be heard. They disappear in performance. Yes, they have this dual function as a piece of literature and a blueprint for performance. I am interested in the latter.
Anyway, I managed to intrigue Trent, and so it came to be that we did a public reading of the play that season. I wanted to know if it would “feel/sound” like a Shakespeare play. It is one of those plays that probably several writers involved with it. (Kenneth Cavander who translated TIMON can tell you exactly when it is Thomas Middleton and when it is Shakespeare. At least with that one, the title page was up front about the dual-credit.)
There is a scene in the second act when King Edward tries to seduce the Countess of Salisbury. And the logic of seduction and the clever way the Countess gets around it sounds Shakespearean. There is also a major speech about love in the middle of a battel in the second half of the play that espouses a philosophy that we will hear over and over again in Shakespeare’s career.
I’ve been trying to get Shakespeare theaters to produce the play ever since. Recently, parts of the play have been showing up in some epic conflations. Irwin Appel created a two evening event putting together called THE DEATH OF KINGS and he began with E3 and ended with R3. It was awesome. And Barbara Gaines, AD of Chicago Shakespeare, put together a conflation that she called TUG OF WAR in which she included parts of E3. I flew to Chicago to see it, because the play just isn’t produced often here in the States.
So when I was putting together my list of plays to commission, I wanted E3 in it. And I knew just the person to do it. The play is 100% verse, and so I have placed it around the time of R2 and King John, as they are the only other plays that are 100% verse in the Shakespeare oeuvre.
Octavio was always on my list of writers. We go way back. I like to tell the story about how he was my assistant stage manager once when we worked at the Dallas Theater Center. (Everyone should be relieved that I realized shortly after that experience that I am not stage manager material.) He is a poet, playwright, actor, and director. And a romantic at heart. So I knew he had the experience to enter this play.
Before he and I talked about which play he would take for the commission, I had sent him a list of ten plays, of which Ted 3 was one of them. I was getting a bit desperate about some of these – HENRY 8 was still on the list! – and I decided that I was going to use my trump card of friendship with Octavio and strongly urge him to take Ted 3.
His opening sentence to me was: “I’ve looked over the list and I’ve decided that I want to work on a play that I know nothing about. Can I do Edward III?” While I’m dancing the mambo in my office, I calmly replied, “Yes, I think that’s a good choice for you.”
Similarly with RICHARD II, I needed another poet, and that’s when I sought out Naomi Iizuka. She asked her good friend, the director Les Waters, which one of Shakespeare’s plays should she take, he immediately replied, R2. (Life is so easy when people do what you want them to do without you having to ask them to do it. Another SCORE!!!!!)
In this play, we are asking those same questions about who, what, and why are they so worked up. Jeez, the British take a long time to settle this crown issue – eight plays worth! And this is the first one. It is written out of historical order, as it is the first story in the cycle, but by now, Shakespeare is hitting his poetic stride. And I need Naomi, a poet of the theater, to conjure up the images in a syntax that our contemporary ears can catch hold of. You know I want the immediate experience – that the image be instantly “translated” in my head, so I can spend more time being emotionally engaged in what happens during the course of these plays. And her careful construction is seamless.
Enough about the death of kings, let’s talk seriously about comedy. Because it is serious business.
The opening scene in COMEDY is that Egeon is going to be put to death for daring to cross the border into Syracuse. Whoa! How is this funny, one wonders? And that’s where the change begins. The contrast of tragedy to comedy is what will take place here. (Remember this when you hear R&J later this week – it begins in comedy and ends in tragedy.) The Duke relents almost instantly after hearing Egeon’s tale of woe. He offers Egeon the opportunity to buy his freedom from the death sentence. He has until 5:00 to raise 1000 crowns.
And so the pressure cooker known as a farce begins. Farce relies on speed and deep stakes. (It is tragedy at 78 rpms.) How much deeper can the stakes be than trying to save one’s life with the clock ticking? And again we hearing a different genre from the earlier comedies. I don’t think he will indulge in true farce again. He will use elements of it as he crafts his plays, that’s for sure. (There is a farcical scene in Ted 3, for instance.)
And it seems like Shakespeare is really ratcheting up his poetic prowess. This play is filled with rhyming couplets and I might call it his Dr. Seuss play. The aural delight is one of its components, and Christina Anderson worked really hard to compress her translation into the iambic pentameter. For the actors, they couldn’t contain themselves within those lines, which made it even funnier. And accounted for why they had to talk so fast – they had a lot of explaining to do!
I’m beginning to pick up more and more resonances that will carry forward: there’s a little bit of what happens to Malvolio in 12N; there is an obsession with physical beauty what pervades all of Shakespeare’s plays; and there was this opening monologue which is a device that Shakespeare deploys in R3.
But the pure joy tonight was around the language that Christina created. For once, I was listening to the play, not being distracted by physical comedy and colorful costumes. And I looked around at the audience and they were listening too. I sit in the back so I can’t always detect laughter, but in the talkback, it was clear that everyone was enjoying the experience. But I think what was happening is that we didn’t want to laugh too loudly because the verbal jokes and the inner rhymes and riffs were do delightful!
Dave Hitz, the co-founder of Play on Shakespeare, had an epiphany listening to the play tonight. “I’ve always struggled to forgive the stupidity of this play: Antipholus is supposedly on a multi-year journey to seek his identical twin, yet he ignores all the obvious signs of finding him. What did he think it would be like? Shouldn’t he have expected exactly what happened? “Hello. I’m a stranger in this town. Ever seen a local who looks just like me?”
Here’s the epiphany: Thinking is the problem. Studying footnotes and treating the elevated, hard-to-understand language as “high art” engages the brain’s analytic centers. But tonight I yielded to the outrageous, joyful silliness. My logic circuits never fired. It was a whole new experience. With enough study you can kind-of-sort-of understand history, but you can’t study your way to slapstick and puns. Humor neurons must be activated in real time. Tonight they were and I loved it!”
This is exactly what I think our project is doing: getting people out of their heads, and into their hearts. (Barry Edelstein has a great book about acting in Shakespeare titled THINKING SHAKESPEARE, which talks about thinking on the line, not before it.) That’s not how human beings behave. (Perhaps we would be in better shape as a species if we did think first before we acted, but we generally do not.) The design of farce is to jolt you out of your head and get you laughing so you can’t think.
I kept imagining how funny this will be when it’s up to speed! That is just one thing they couldn’t accomplish in three days of rehearsal. But golly, director Devin Brain worked some fast magic. There was a brilliantly funny convention used in the last act as three of the actors needed to be two different characters within that scene!
I never heard before that Adriana might have been the one with the wealth. I never could figure out how ne-er-do-well Antipholus of Syracuse was financially successful. That dynamic could put some tension into a relationship, eh? I saw Adriana have that moment of revelation when the Abbess tells her that her jealousy has caused her husband to stray and lose his mind. And when the Dromios meet, it was so moving! Such emotional pay off in a comedy? Pshaw!
Comedies are about contemporary society, which is the main challenge in translating them. How far can the translator go in terms of daily references? What I thought was magical about tonight’s combination (Anderson/Shakespeare) is that she loosened us up enough to realize that these plays had anachronisms in them 400 years ago. I love the spliff reference. And i love the anachronism of Johnny Cash. Smeone in the audience remarked that this experience felt like it must have felt like 400 years ago to an audience. A triple SCORE!!!!
Tomorrow: A NIGHT OFF!!! And we need it!