The Third Act: Stripped, Betrayed, and Rhymed

How does a play that rhymes
Keep us all in line
Is it the lovely dresses?
Or simply all the messes

The scrapes and schemes
With portents and themes
Bringing out death and love
Or all of the above

But in all the wonder of the stage
We are released from the worldly cage
To watch in awesome delight
As the story tries to set things right

In the last month I’ve had the opportunity to attend four different plays. The first I’ve reviewed before: a tale of witches, assumptions, and finding the truth.  Wicked with a first time watcher is always great, and this time I could geek out and sing along.

The other three plays were part of my usual love of Shakespeare. With the start of the 2011-2012 season I experienced my usual double header with Free For All and a newly translated French play that was all in rhyme (much better than my attempt above). However, before we talk about those shows I thought we could talk about another version of the Bard work that I saw in Staunton, VA.

Stripped Down Hamlet

A group of girlfriends and I spent the weekend in a main street town two hours west of DC. Staunton is one of those small towns that have eateries that embrace the local food movement, shops that are all about supporting local merchants, rehabbed local movie house, and a historic hotel. It also has one other thing: a recreation of the London Blackfriars Playhouse.

Blackfriars is the name of two different theatres that existed in London. The first was a children’s theatre replaced by an Elizabethan playhouse that became home to Shakespeare’s company. Both theatres were built on the grounds of Blackfriars monastery. In building this re-creation, The American Shakespeare Center (ASC)  intended to mimic Shakespeare’s “original staging conditions.”

I’ve been a season ticket holder of the Shakespeare Theatre in DC for three years now. With each show they put on I am amazed by what a theatre with a strong budget can do with creative staging. Seeing a show at Blackfriars is a completely different experience.

A Silver Infinity Necklace (which I own) with "This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True" inscribed upon it.

To Thine own Self be True.  On this particular trip, we attended a production of Hamlet. In contrast to what I’ve usually seen, ASC presented the show with lights fully on, audience members on the stage, and intermission music that pulled from modern day tunes with the mood of the sixteenth century play. For Example: Letters to Cleo’s Cruel to be Kind, Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence.

Devoid of the trappings of set the show forced the audience to pay attention to the dialogue, and the language of Shakespeare. The lack of set also pushed the actors and through their delivery turned Hamlet’s insanity and subsequent tragedy into a comedy filled with dark black humor.

One last comment on the lighting: Usually when sitting in a darkened theatre the viewer feels disconnected from the story before them.  Part of the reason that this version of Hamlet worked so well is that we became a part of the conversation. With the ability to make direct eye contact during the show, I felt as if the story was being told to us, as active agents in Hamlet’s demise, rather than merely a passive presentation.

You can see Hamlet at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA through November 2011.

Et Tu Brute: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

The third show I saw last month was the first show of the 2011-2012 Shakespeare Theatre Company  (STC) season, which was also a part of  Free For All. This year’s free show was Julius Caesar, which while far from perfect (my group wasn’t a big fan of the actor playing Mark Antony), didn’t disappoint.

Ciarán Hinds as Gaius Julius Caeser in HBO's Rome

Presented with as much historical accuracy as possible (at one point Caesar is groomed using these scythe like scrapers called a strigil), the show evoked all the drama surrounding Caesar’s demise with gusto.

With some entertaining hand-to-hand combat and on stage blood, you really felt sucked into the fatal events on the Ides of March.

I walked away from the show wanting a refresher on the way historians describe Caeser’s death, since much of the popular depictions of his death are often drawn from Shakespeare’s play.  So much so that you expect familiar lines in other unrelated representations of the rise and fall of Gaius Julius Caeser.  I remember when watching the HBO show Rome (which tried to be gritty and realistic) that I expected “E Tu Brute” (click for an interesting conversation about the source of the quotation) to be uttered when Ciarán Hinds (Ceaser) met his end on the senate chamber floor.

There are many different ancient historians of Julius Caeser, and the two I am familiar with are Suetonius and Plutarch. While Suetonius is know for writing his histories by theme, Plutarch wrote about history in a more chronological fashion. I thought I would pull the section in Plutarch’s Lives of Caesar that describes how Caesar died.

Well, then, Antony, who was a friend of Caesar’s and a robust man, was detained outside by Brutus Albinus, who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation; but Caesar went in, and the senate rose in his honour. Some of the partisans of Brutus took their places round the back of Caesar’s chair, while others went to meet him, as though they would support the petition which Tullius Cimber presented to Caesar in behalf of his exiled brother, and they joined their entreaties to his and accompanied Caesar up to his chair.  But when, after taking his seat, Caesar continued to repulse their petitions, and, as they pressed upon him with greater importunity, began to show anger towards one and another of them, Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast. At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”

So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.

As I’ve talked about before, representations of history are often just as useful as historical truth. They reveal subtle cues regarding the time in which it was written, while also providing a glimpse into the lasting legacy of a particular piece of history.

Since this show is now closed, I leave you with Caesar’s final moments, Shakespeare style: Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar.

Rhyme Time: The Heir Apparent

Just four days after seeing Julius Caesar I saw a new staging by the STC called The Heir Apparent, written by Jean-François Regnard in 1708.  For the first time in a long time I walked into the show not knowing what to expect, and about two hours later I walked out smiling. Presented entirely in rhyme, this translation by David Ives (who also did The Liar a few years back) was engaging and light-hearted.  By no means a serious play, it follows a young man Eraste who wants to marry, but can’t until his miserly uncle names him the heir apparent. Hijinks ensue, including some cross dressing and a surprise guest that even now we can’t stop talking about.

Ives even inserts, in that clever way that translators do, some more modern allusions bridging the gap between 18th century France and 21st century Washington, D.C. Sometimes this bothers me, but in this case not so much. Probably, in the end, because the jokes flowed seamlessly into the rhyme scheme and were so enigmatically delivered by the players on the stage.

Even the reviewers got into the fun, with Peter Marks of the Washington Post presenting his opinion the same rhyme scheme as the show.

I highly recommend seeing this show if you can, its run ends October 23. For more information visit www.shakespearetheatre.org

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