Sunday, July 18, 2010

Michigan Shakespeare Festival Opens

I was happy to be in Jackson for the official opening of the 2010 Season of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival yesterday. I attended the first (of two) preview performances of The Comedy of Errors and the opening night performance of Romeo and Juliet. Both productions were good (in my own opinion), but Romeo and Juliet was much better.

Perhaps this is part due to the fact that R&J is "better" play, or is tragedy (although structured as a comedy until the very end). Shakespearean comedies (especially the "early ones") are more difficult (in my opinion again) to stage properly. They are full of long passages of puns and somewhat obscure allusions (to modern ears) as well as references to law, classical works, "aristocratic" interests, etc.

These puns and allusions would go over much better for performances at the royal court, at private houses (of the wealthy) or in the Inns of the Temple (law schools such as Gray's Inn) and I am convinced that these comedies were written for these venues. In fact, I'm not sure that these plays (I'm thinking particularly of Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Loves' Labours' Lost) were EVER performed on the "public stage". There are no records of such performances (although, admittedly, there were better records kept of court performances and much of our knowledge of the performances of plays come from entries in diaries of the time [which were usually kept by the more educated people in the society who would probably see the plays at such venues as the royal court, private houses, or the Inns of the Temple]).

The first two of these plays were never printed until the First Folio in 1623, again suggesting (to me) that there was not much call for them from the public (who would, presumably, not have seen them). In opposition to this argument however is the fact that LLL was published in Quarto form (in 1598) and, moreover, was the first such "Shakespeare" play to actually have the author's name attached ("newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespeare"). All three of these plays WERE mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598 in his list of plays by Shakespeare.

In any case, the presence of these comedic elements in the plays is very problematic for a modern director, which makes these plays (in my opinion) more difficult. In the present case (at Jackson) the director (as far as I could tell from his bio in the program) has never directed Shakespeare before (although he has done some "classical" work) so maybe he found himself particularly challenged.

His solution to the problem is much the same as that used by many Shakespearean directors facing this problem. It is to "do the jokes fast" and "cover them up" with music or funny accents or other stage business. This kind of "dumbs the play down" for the audience since it is basically telling them, "Yes, we know you won't get any or these jokes, so just believe us that they are funny and don't even bother trying to listen to the words." In fact, in the performance I saw last night, the actor playing Dromio of Ephesus (or maybe Syracuse, it's hard to tell them apart, you know), after delivering one of these stream of puns and allusions (it is usually the "lower class or servant" characters who do these) actually says to the audience, "These are the jokes, folks." I don't know if this was an ad lib by the actor or was intended by the director (I suspect the latter).

Well, anyway, I DID see a preview performance, so I will wait to see the performance on July 31 (when some of the "rough edges" may be gone).

On the other hand, the performance of Romeo and Juliet was very good. This is in part due to it being the "flagship" production of the MSF season (it has the most performances) and to it being directed by someone with a lot more experience with Shakespeare. Of course it was "trimmed" a little (you pretty much have to do that with Shakespeare in order to fit it into a manageable performance time). I particularly liked the way the director "juggled and partially cut down a few scenes" in order to perform much of Act III, scene 3 (leaving out the presence of the Nurse) and the last half of Act III, scene 2 at essentially the same time (by having them take place at opposite ends of the stage and moving back and forth between them, a few lines at a time). These are basically scenes right after the murder of Tybalt where Friar Lawrence is comforting Romeo and the Nurse is comforting Juliet. I liked the parallel nature of these scenes (the father and mother figures). All in all, a very enjoyable performance.

I remind Oberoners that we are planning a "group outing" to see both of these productions on July 31 and we (well, mostly I) will be doing a "Bard Talk" at 6:30 before the performance of Comedy of Errors at 7:30. I hope to see you all there.

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