- Meet the Casts of the 2009 Season
- Spotlight on Twelfth Night or All You Need is Love
- Spotlight on The Importance of Being Earmest
- Spotlight on Julius Caesar
One of the cool things Bob and I have done over the past few years is to go to a little fishing village on the Sea of Cortez between Cabo and La Paz each Spring to put on a Shakespeare play with the locals – mainly ex-patriot Americans and Canadians and a smattering of Mexican citizens. It’s a bit of a saga how a Falstaffian lawyer turned fish smoker from El Paso named Clarence Moyers (a.k.a. “The Impressario”) lured us into giving up what used to be a restful annual vacation for long days of putting up a 40-person show in 10 days time (everyone who shows up to rehearsals is cast, including little kids.) But that’s another story.
What has been a pure joy is seeing how actors and audience who don’t think they are going to like Shakespeare – and who in some cases have never acted in or sometimes even seen a play – fall in love with the wonder and delight of Shakespeare’s stories and language. Of course, in Buena Vista there are no critics or scholars. And so we take great liberties with the plays, adapting them to appeal to our audiences, while retaining as much as we can of what is great about Shakespeare. Changing, for example, “thou lackest a cup of canary” to “thou lackest a shot of tequila” delights our audience, and makes the play speak directly to them.
We know that Shakespeare’s plays contain many in-jokes and local humor — references to contemporary celebrities and events that we read about in “Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare,” yet even when we understand them find unplayable onstage; we know it’s a joke, but we can’t make it funny in the 21st Century. We know Shakespeare used popular songs of the day in his plays, and more music than just the lyrics published today. We know Shakespeare used contemporary clothing, perhaps even sometimes recognizable clothing once worn by well-known London personalities. We know there were introductions and epilogues now lost to us.
Shakespeare’s London was a town of about 200,000 people. As a recent PBS special said, “Everyone knew everyone.” There were a wealth of shared cultural references, and therefore opportunities to poke fun at politicians, poets and English life.
Yet, today we have become so aware of the genius of each of Shakespeare’s words and phrases that we devote much mental effort debating whether a folio or a quarto reading is more resonant, or what punctuation mark Shakespeare intended and what that tells us about vocal phrasing. And this is a great and glorious pursuit. Yet, I would venture to posit, it is at least as glorious a pursuit to wonder about how these plays connected with their original audiences in ways that might be lost to us today. Why were the three parts of HENRY IV such huge crowd favorites? Why did TITUS ANDRONICUS make so much money at the box office? And how can we recapture what might now be lost in how the plays speak to and entertain an audience?
It is in this spirit that Bob and I have begun adapting some of the plays for our Baja audience. We actually did our first adaptation in 1997 here in Marin — a 1950’s TAMING OF THE SHREW with Petruchio as Elvis Presley (“Hard Headed Woman”) and Kate as Leslie Gore (“You Don’t Own Me.”) It was a smash hit with our audiences and the critics railed against it like mad. There was so much controversy that the Marin I.J. pubished a page of letters to the editor, complaining about the review. We had been inspired by seeing MIchael Gambon in Dennis Potter’s astounding “The Singing Detective,” still one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television. But we realized if we were ever to do anything like that again we would need to call it an adaptation and give it a new name.
Twelve years later, we are bringing to Marin another Shakespeare adaptation, incubated last Spring in Baja. We think it is in the spirit of Shakespeare – the spirit of pleasing an audience with a variety of tools: complex characters in intricate situations, great poetry and deep insight into the human heart, and shared cultural references that provide opportunities for humor and understanding. For any purists out there who might find this offensive — please come see our classically produced and scholarly production of JULIUS CAESAR this summer! But you might just find that our 1960’s inspired, music-filled TWELFTH NIGHT, or ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE, while not pretending to be a scholarly interpretation of the play, moves and amuses you in new and enjoyable ways.
Let us know what you think! We hope you’ll enjoy the fun.
The Irish lad, born in Dublin on October 13, 1854 of a fiery Irish Nationalist mother and a brilliant philandering surgeon father, was christened Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. By the time he entered Oxford and began his dizzying ascent, he commenced shedding names as a balloonist does ballast. As he rose higher into the rarified air at the top of London’s literary and social stratosphere, he foresaw a day when he would be referred to simply as “The Wilde” or “The Oscar.” Had he lived past his 46th year, into the 20th century, he might have achieved single name status. As it is, a century plus after his tragic death, he is remembered as Oscar Wilde: poet, essayist, playwright, raconteur and perhaps the wittiest man who ever spoke.
“I saved my genius for my life, my works reflect only my talent.” But what a talent he had! And thankfully his extravagant tastes – “give me the luxuries and I can dispense with the necessities” – forced him to overcome his natural indolence and occasionally put pen to paper. The culminating result of his authorship, finished mere weeks before his life began to unravel when that prick, the Marquis of Queensbury, sent his balloon plummeting back to earth, is, of course, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” It is a play that eludes all categories, a sui generis work of pure genius that could only have been created by the intellectually brilliant but emotionally arrested man of words who was Oscar Wilde.
Wilde was to the Victorian era as the fool is in Shakespeare: the wisest, most perceptive and sagacious character on the stage, salting wisdom with humor, turning accepted truisms on their heads, lifting spirits through kindly frivolity and piercing pomposity and humbug with his rapier wit.
Now, what’s in that word which describes Wilde so well…”wit”? Trying to define wit is like having to explain a joke…too much and too late. And, in fact, we are too late to ever fully appreciate Wilde’s reportedly dazzling wit as a conversationalist, which could hold a table spellbound for hours on end. To some extent, you would have had to have been there to witness his timing, pauses, inflections, and the musical timbre of his voice. Whenever I hear some of the rare recordings of Dylan Thomas I am put in mind of what Wilde must have sounded like. As to content, some anecdotes survive, beginning with his college days at Oxford. When reprimanded for being late to a class, his response was, “What can that tiny watch know of the great doings of Mighty Apollo?” Or when a favorite soft-spoken professor, Walter Pater, asked his students after a lecture “Did you hear me?” Oscar’s instantaneous reply “We overheard you, sir” brought gales of laughter.
And so on throughout the final quarter of the 19th century right up to his penultimate day, November 29, 1900, when on his deathbed in France he said to a companion, “Robbie, either that wallpaper has to go, or I will.” Sadly, the wallpaper stayed and Wilde made good his threat.
The ability to make light of, well…everything…to turn logic upside down, to start in one direction – “Never put off until tomorrow…” – and then to cut back against the grain – “…what you can possibly do the day after” – and to do so consistently and instantaneously, was part of his immense charm.
However, now that his scintillating talk has vanished into air, thin air, we plodding producers of plays are plentifully pleased that the Divine Oscar took the trouble to leave us “The Importance of Being Earnest.” We fervently hope to do him justice.
What attracts you to wanting to play this role?
What is it in the play that gnaws at you, or amazes you?
What is your personal connection to what you love or want to explore?
“Julius Caesar” was the first of Shakespeare plays aside from “Hamlet,” with which I became emotionally bonded. My 10th grade high school teacher allowed us extra credit for memorizing and reciting from the Shakespeare plays we were studying. As a teenager this was a godsend, because my written assignments were almost never submitted on time, and my test scores usually hovered disastrously between C- and D+. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being in school, it’s just that I was possessed by a boundless and joyful chaotic energy that probably would have been defined as “attention deficit disorder,” had that term been coined back in the 1950s.
Anyhow, when the class was assigned “Julius Caesar,” and the memorization and recitation of Brutus’s and Antony’s funeral orations dangled as bait for extra credit, I leapt at the chance and was hooked forever by the play. In those days Antony was the hero of the play, and Brutus and Cassius were the villains. Somehow, I was oblivious of Antony’s doings in the first scene of Act 4 – harsh, unfeeling, and self serving.
But all it takes to get a different perspective on one of Shakespeare’s works is to play a different role in a different production. In my early 20’s while a student at the University of Colorado, I was cast as Cassius: I dyed my hair black, created a Roman nose out of mortician’s wax, and became the hero of the play. Caesar and Antony were the villains, Brutus was my best friend (despite a certain tardiness of comprehension), and Caesar’s assassination was totally justified.
In my mid 30’s, I once more had occasion to revisit the play when as drama instructor for Town School in San Francisco, I directed a student production. The 8th graders played the leads, the 7th graders the supporting roles, and the 6th graders were the Roman plebs. Finally, in my role as director (and with advancing maturity and experience), I began to discern that Shakespeare didn’t stock “Julius Caesar” with heroes and villains, but rather with flawed human beings best characterized by one of Shakespeare’s own insights (though coming from another play) – “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipt them not, and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.”
In my late 30’s I was able to realize my youthful dream of playing Mark Antony when I was cast in that role for Jerry Turner’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). And this Antony incorporated all of those dark shades I blithely ignored in my teens.
In my mid 40’s I again obtained a fresh perspective on the play when I essayed Brutus in Michael Edwards’ production at Shakespeare Santa Cruz.
Then in my late 50’s I had the riveting experience of gaining yet deeper insights into “Julius Caesar” when I dramaturged the play for Laird Williamson’s dark production at OSF. When Laird asked me to assemble brief historical biographies of all the characters in the play, little did I know that a new hobby (obsession?) was about to be born – the study of 1st Century B.C. Roman History.
One goal remained, that of playing the title role itself: one of the most enigmatic characters Shakespeare ever wrote – a man at once powerful and weak, wise and foolish, egotistical and selfless – whose spirit dominates the play. After our successful collaboration on “King Lear” in 2006, when Bob and Lesley asked me if there was anything I’d like to do with MSC in the future, I blurted out “I’d very much like to play the role of Julius Caesar!” And the rest will be history.
Is there a moment or two in this play you find particularly moving or fascinating?
Midway through the play Caesar’s assassins stand over his corpse and bathe their hands in his blood. One of them asks,
“How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents unknown?”
This question was first spoken 410 years ago by an actor on the platform stage of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I find it moving that the baton of that question has been relayed down through the centuries and will be picked up this summer by another actor upon another platform stage in the first performance ever of “Julius Caesar” in the Forest Meadows Theatre.
What would you like the audience to get out of the experience of seeing it?
Ideally this will depend, of course, on the shape our particular production takes. However, I personally would like them to leave pondering this thought: do evil so that good will result, and see what happens.