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Day 19: “In the spirit of beating a dead horse, let’s do it again.” Sabrina Peck, director, JC

June 13, 2019

Day 19: “In the spirit of beating a dead horse, let’s do it again.” Sabrina Peck, director, JC

It took me three times to get out of my house today. The first time I was on the street; the second time I got to the lobby; the third time, I hadn’t closed the door of my apartment. At least it wasn’t about forgetting the key. Still, even I can read these kinds of obvious signs. I’m distracted!

I’m also exhausted. I’m beginning to understand what happens when one is chronically sleep deprived. The synapses in my brain aren’t firing. I’m slow to thought. I’m even slow to feeling. I’m having trouble keeping up with this blog. I’ve had chronic insomnia my whole adult life, but this is different. It’s like having a low grade fever all the time. (For the record, it’s not like I’m surprised. “Gee, I wonder why I’m so tired all the time.” I am aware of this unusual schedule that we are on.)

“Did you get your hair cut?” my friend Eric asks. “No,”, I say, “I just washed it.” I’ve forgotten about the horror of humidity on one’s hair. So the Play on baseball cap has become a fashion feature. I need to get to Keihl’s for a remedy!

Hamlet begins today. Ho hum, just another day at the “office.” Years ago, when I told my Shakespeare mentor, Dr. Mary Z. Maher, about this project, her response was, “This will be great for those lesser known plays, but you don’t need to do this with Hamlet.” And I said to myself, “That’s going to be the first one I do.” I’m contrary that way. 

Lisa Peterson, perhaps still better known as a director, has been writing for about 10 years. But she was directing HAMLET at OSF about four years ago, and one day she dropped by my office where I had a huge white erase board with the names of the Shakespeare plays and names of playwrights next to it. She noticed right away that HAMLET hadn’t been taken. And so she said, “I’d like to do that one.” And I thought, “Thank goodness, no one that I’ve asked so far has wanted to touch HAMLET.” She will know the play extremely well by the time she finishes directing the production and I’m interested to learn what her experience as a director might uncover about how these plays work.

I wish I had a picture of that big white board. It was 4’ x 6’ and I had divided the 39 plays into four categories: comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances. I didn’t want the men to have all the tragedies and histories, so I needed a chart to look at every day so I gently and imperceptively steer some playwrights to other plays. (This kind of gentle and imperceptible steering is second nature to the dramaturg.) As it happened, the women do dominate the comedies (there are 13 of them, however) and they do dominate the romances. But I did manage to get assign some of the histories and tragedies to them.

It being a double performance day, I only have time to spot check in the other rooms before heading to CSC for the matinee of MERRY WIVES. JC is struggling with how to manage large crowds; H5 is learning how to use the formal device of the Chorus as contrast to the scenes before and after it; and AS YOU is asking the big philosophical question: “To napkin or not to napkin?” Is it nobler to mime props or should they ask for a red bandana to wrap Orlando’s arm in?

Our Festival world is divided into eight parts. Or teams, as we call them. (I never got over summer camp.) And each team has a production stage manager and an assistant stage manager assigned to it, which they stay with throughout the Festival. The vast majority of the actors are moved around, but the SM team stays put. Someone had to be the continuity police. Anyway, every team has a Shakespeare kit, which includes letters, rings, crowns, etc. And for one of the Henry Vis, I can’t remember which one, we bought red and white bandanas as a symbol of allegiance to the red rose of York and the white rose of Lancaster. (Or maybe it’s the other way around?)

I slip into the Hamlet room during the moment in which he asks Horatio and Marcellus to swear that they won’t speak about what they have seen this night. Ellen McLaughlin who is directing this reading, asks Terry (Horatio) and Annie (Marcellus) to literally touch Raffi’s (Hamlet) hand. In unison, they say, “We have the pestilence and we don’t want to infect Hamlet.” They promise they will actually touch his hand during the reading, provided that they are over the pestilence by then.

Off to CSC for the rest of the day and night. During the scene in the woods at the end of the play, I think about how it would have been performed during the day outside 400 years ago, and everyone would have just accepted that it was nighttime. I think about this in terms of the opening scene in HAMLET, which also might have been performed outside during the day 400 years ago. When I first arrived at OSF, the outdoor shows began at 8:30. And this was to give lighting designs more dark time. Which i always found amusing. Not that I am an original practice person, but we torqued the opening of these plays so there would be darkness. They didn’t depend on darkness 400 years ago, did they?

I also am mesmerized by the incantation of Mistress Quickly (read by Tina Benko). I was flashforwarding to the witches in Macbeth. 

There was a big debate during the last workshop of this translation in LA last month about whether to give Fenton’s speech chastising the parental Pages to Ann. We tried it during the workshop, and I certainly understood why we want to give her more agency, but I’ve asked the writers to keep these plays in their time period, and it didn’t sound right for her to have that speech. When Dipika writes her updated sitcom around these characters, I would hope that a young woman would be given such agency. 

In many of the comedies, there are more swear words that pop up. And we all have mixed feelings about them. There are two parts to the debate: one is authenticity. Were such swear words spoken onstage in Shakespeare’s time? And two, how they feel to us today. Most people don’t like the assault. I get that. But there are things that happen in these plays that an expletive seems ot be a logical response to. Dipika has added other anachronisms, like “tic tac” and I like these being sprinkled throughout. Shakespeare is filled with anachronisms but we aren’t that aware of them. And I would like to laugh in recognition of those moments out of time as I think an Elizabethan audience might have laughed.

But one of my alltime favorite moments in all of these translations is in this one. I don’t know it makes me giggle every time. (Remember, I am sleep deprived.) It’s the password that Slender comes up with so he knows it is Ann that he is pulling away from the crowd of fairies. “I’ll say Marco, and she’ll say Polo.” It’s something perfectly inane in the original – fuss budget, maybe? – but this so delights me because it is absurd in that it doesn’t seem related to anything that’s going on, and isn’t that how the game is played? That you’re trying to find someone by shouting these two words back and forth? This is just a delightful moment for me.

In the talkback, Christine Sumption, the dramaturg, tells the audience that the first scene was the hardest one to crack. We catch Robert Shallow in middle of a lather over something and he’s ready to go to the supreme court over it. But we get behind quickly. She likened the process that she and Dipika went through to reading without one’s glasses, and then putting them on and saying, “Oh that’s what they’re saying.”

Tonight we get the other side of the wonderful world of Prince Hal. We had a lot of fun last night with the shenanigans of Falstaff. But every action has a reaction, and H4.2 seems to be the reaction to H4.1. What rises must fall. 

Ive been fascinated by how hard it is to get going in these plays that we have heard so far. From the first week, the set ups seem to take forever. When is Shakespeare going to start a play with some action? There’s a lot of exposition, it seems, and this play starts out with a lot of the same. 

However, there is a difference. This world isn’t the sunshine world of H4.1. This is a world that is cloudy. The King is ill, perhaps dying. Falstaff is ill, perhaps dying. The country is slowly rotting. It’s not a particularly pleasant place to be. Where’s the Boarshead Tavern crew for a pickup when you need them?

It feels like Shakespeare is dramatizing anticipation. The world will irrevocably change when the king dies. And an entire generation will die with him. And so there is a lot of treading water, trying not to get into much trouble, but perhaps humans just can’t sit still. People constantly miss each other in this play. 

One of the many discoveries through the translation exercise is that the comedy bits in each of these plays are truly funny to us today. Comedy is the hardest to carry forward. The setups rely on their contemporary times, and the specifics of those setups are easily forgotten. Look at an old episode of The Daily Show sometime. Who even remembers the people Jon Stewart is satirizing? 

In this play, even the comic bits are dark. And less funny. As if everyone is trying to make everyone else laugh. It’s not genuine fun, but rather desperate. It has the feel of some improv scenes that just don’t add up to much. 

Beginning the play with Rumor, which is a personification, not a character, really sets the tone, doesn’t it? It’s a world that isn’t coherent, that doesn’t agree, that is falling apart. And when there are cracks, this is when the nasty side of human behavior can seep in. Another reason why I love the histories: Shakespeare includes every level of engagement: politics, religion, social, cultural, personal, domestic. There isn’t an aspect of the world that isn’t rotting.

So if that’s the state of the world at the beginning, the state at the end must be uplifting. And to clear the paths for the reign of Henry the Fifth, the rotting world must be completely swept away. And so it is that Falstaff is discarded. I find it to be one of the most moving scenes in Shakespeare. There isn’t a play that doesn’t deal with the challenges of power. And the cost that one must pay if one wants to be an effective leader. By now, perhaps we are tired of Falstaff. But that doesn’t mean I want him kicked to the curb either! There is just a slight sliver of hope in Henry’s response, however, that I’m not sure people often catch. If Falstaff can behave for a certain length of time, Henry may reinstate his pension. Something like that. But the tragedy of Falstaff is that he won’t live long enough to change his ways. Is that always the tragedy for the rest of us too? Can we ever change our ways?

While I contemplate that further, I found that the order of hearing these three plays – H4.1, MWW, H4.2 – gave me an interesting perspective on Falstaff. As you know, we had three different actors playing Falstaff in these three plays. I don’t know if Shakepseare dashed off MWW in between writing the Henry 4’s. But I programmed it that way based on some scholarly speculation about such an order. What happened last night, though, is that I entered H4.2 with a different feeling about Falstaff. Not just that he’s in a state of disease, like everyone and everything in the world of H4.2, but I just watched him be humiliated in MWW. It’s a mean but playful humiliation, isn’t it? And still, it has to hurt. And so I bring the comic humiliation into the I’m looking forward as im listening to H4.2. And somehow that humiliation at the end of part 2 was even more moving to me this time. Because it is a sudden twist from comic kidding to deadly seriousness. 

Tomorrow: the year of 1599 begins

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Lue Morgan Douthit

CEO and Creative Director

During her 25 years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Douthit oversaw a...

During her 25 years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Douthit oversaw a full service literary department as Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy. Play on! began in 2012 as a pilot program under her supervision. She was the Production Dramaturg for more than 50 productions, including 15 world premieres and over two dozen Shakespeare productions. In 2009, she was the co-producer and co-founder of the Black Swan Lab for new play development at OSF which she ran until 2016. In 2019, she co-founded Play on Shakespeare, which carries forward the Shakespeare translation work began at OSF.Douthit is the recipient of the 1999 Literary Manager & Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) Prize in Dramaturgy: The Elliott Hayes Award. She received a PhD at the University of Washington, an MFA from Trinity University, and an MA from University of Arizona.

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