During the just-concluded 16th Annual Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon (which I hope to describe in an upcoming post) I had the opportunity to see a very unusual production of Shake-Speare's Sonnets in Portland (Cheryl Eagan-Donovan, another conference attendee) went along with me). Note that this was definitely NOT part of the Conference; we went on our own after the Conference events were finished for the day.
There were only two other people in the audience with us. I am curious as to what they thought of the performance. The production was very "avant-garde" (a term I got from Cheryl; I would have said "incomprehensible").
It was done (as you may be able to see in the above advertising poster) by the Fuse Theatre Ensemble at the Q Center in Portland. This is the community center for the Gay and Lesbian community in Portland and is quite a nice place. The intent of the production was to show how the Sonnets can be seen as homosexual and bisexual (a relationship involving Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton) and that this could be the reason they were initially suppressed after being published in 1609.
The tag line under the name on the poster (hard to read above) is "What if the reason we know so little is because they knew too much?" I really like this sentiment. Of course there have been various other theories put forward to explain why the Sonnets had to be hidden and their author not identified.
The production featured two women, playing the parts of Poet and Earl, and a man (dressed in black with a black hood covering his head and face). I don't really know what his part was. He seemed to be some kind of manipulator of the two other characters (and probably also represented the Rival Poet in Sonnets 78-86). The Poet had tape over her mouth for the whole performance (I guess signifying inability to come forward or be acknowledged).
There was a projection screen which, at the beginning and end, showed strange images of someone writing sonnets using black and red ink which was then smeared all around and, during most of the show, a "count-up" of the Sonnets as they were each performed (yes, all 154 of them). The show lasted about 90 minutes, with no intermission (which may have been fortunate for the actors as I don't think Cheryl and I would have stayed for a second Act).
As I said, all 154 Sonnets were performed (in a fashion). Most were recited in entirety by a voice-over (I think it was the man in black, who it turns out was also the director of the play) with occasional recitation in whole or part of some Sonnets by the Earl along with the voice-over ("Why not the Poet?" Cheryl and I wondered-oh yes, she had tape over her mouth). There were some Sonnets, especially at the beginning (the first 17 "procreation" sonnets) and at the end (the "Dark Lady" ones) which had only their first few lines said.
During all of this Sonnet reciting, the actors engaged in highly theatrical (i.e. weird in my opinion) dancing and stylized encounters (during which the actors sometimes wrote words on each other with a marker pen). There was a sign at the box office (that is a desk in the Q center) warning that the show was rated R for partial nudity and strong language. Well, there was certainly partial nudity in some of the encounters of the Poet and Earl, but the only language I heard was by Shakespeare (well, I guess it could be considered strong).
After it was all over, there was opportunity for some discussion with the actors. They did know about the Authorship Question, but were not that interested in it. They only wanted to explore the themes they had found in the Sonnets.
Cheryl and I certainly had an interesting time!
Perhaps we had seen something wonderful and groundbreaking and perhaps we simply wasted our only free evening during the Concordia Conference. Time will tell. You can read more if you want at fusepdx.org
I do like the tag line very much though!