We are currently in rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra. Now you may be wondering a few things:
Isn't that crazy ambitious?
Yes, yes it is. In fact because it is such a large scale project we are workshopping the three plays in advance of producing them.
Where did the idea come from?
The idea of doing the three tragedies named after legendary couples has been kicking around in my brain for a very long time. I think it started with reading the three essays in Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All on the three plays while researching Troilus and Cressida. Garber draws wonderful comparisons and the idea of experiencing that discourse through rehearsal and performance was deeply attractive. Next I saw the brilliant Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and felt emboldened by that kind of daring exploration of structure. While repertory is less of a departure from the tradition of Shakespeare in performance than an inter-splicing would be I feel that doing the three plays in repertory and on their own is a prerequisite for that kind of exercise, so who knows maybe there is a Juliet/Cressida/Cleopatra in my future. For now though the Lover's Project is a full production of each of these romantic tragedies.
The three plays are magnificent in terms of language and character and share numerous structural similarities: a marriage scene, a morning after scene, a lover torn away by the surrounding struggle. Here are the three plays in 3 panels courtesy of My Gosling at Good Tickle Brain.
Romeo and Juliet or the one everyone knows. There may not be a war but there are two households that disturb the quiet of Verona streets with brawls that occasionally escalate to the point of a body count.
Troilus and Cressida or the one almost no one has seen. There is a war, the most famous war of all time as the Greeks and Trojans battle between feasting and intermarrying. Troilus and Cressida both make it out of Shakespeare's play alive (unlike the other lovers) though her reality in particular is horrifying.
Antony and Cleopatra or the one in which the course of history is changed. There are wars with battles both by sea and land. There is something triumphant in their end - even if Octavius gets a kingdom for a consolation prize.
We open in a month, a little less than a month, a little month...
A little month, or ere those shoes were old, with which she followed my poor father's body, like Niobe all tears.
The little month line is one of my favorites, and a masterful examples of one of Jose Rivera's 36 assumptions about playwriting: "Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA; potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play." Embedded in the little month line is a large question: do we move on, when do we move on, how long do we grieve, and what is left of us or of our grief? Niobe, following the death of her children, never ceased her tears; her weeping continued even after she turned to stone. And so she stands, a perpetual monument to grief. (Yes, there's a Twelfth Night allusion there.) The Niobe line also takes me to one of my other favorite plays in all of early modern drama, The Maid's Tragedy, in which Evadne vows: I will redeem one minute of my age, or like another Niobe I'll weep till I am water. Sigh. Hamlet does this to me; to be in Hamlet's presence is to associate far and wild and wide, as Hamlet's mind is like that and part of the thrill of the play is to be invited into such a noble mind. It's a whirlwind, and in a little month you're invited to the party! Wedding? Funeral? Wake? No matter. You should come. Tickets are available now and are offered at five different price points so you can pay what is affordable for you. Even better, Enso Theatre Ensemble is performing The Romeo and Juliet Project at Shaking the Tree for the three weeks prior to our opening. If you purchase a ticket to their show, you will receive a discount code for ours, and vice versa. So book your tickets now before they fly away.
Two kinds of time are on my mind: rehearsal time and the imagined-inferred timeline of each show.
From a rehearsal standpoint, we are nearing the halfway mark and things are about to accelerate. For the first half of the rehearsal process we have dropped in the text in as close to chronological order as we could achieve with everyone's schedules. This means we have moved at a delicious and deliberate pace - eye to eye, breath to breath - letting the language reveal our hearts to us. Dropping in is a technique developed by Shakespeare & Co. that replaces table work with a kinetic experience of text in which actors are asked a string of questions which the director and their assistant(s) are improvising so that a twofold free association is going on: that of the person asking the questions, and that of the performer answering them. The key is that the answer is expressed on the word, and so everyone receives a rich and varied hearing of the words, words, words that are our primary materials in these stories. Now the next set of concerns are upon us - movement, props, music etc.
Often in rehearsal the time-line has come up. How many months from Hamlet's funeral to Gertrude's wedding to the play within the play? How many weeks has Feste been roaming, and how long since Olivia's brother's death at the start of Twelfth Night? How long has Sebastian been in Antonio's care when he decides to set off on his own and explore Illyria?
The exact answer to each does not matter; it is more relative time and the attitude of the play toward time. Hamlet takes time. He had to get home from his studies at Wittenberg to attend the funeral, though the wedding apparently took place that same weekend (should we decide to trust his narration.) He then in a matter of days meets the Ghost, pens a new scene for the Murder of Gonzago, breaks his girlfriend's heart, and murders her father. And then he is sent off to England to be executed on the order of his uncle. Of course, that does not come to pass. Still, he does go abroad, and one feels he is gone rather a long time, as the Hamlet who returns is so transformed from the Hamlet who ventured forth. The sense of time in Hamlet is part of the play's power; time is so measured and rational, an order built upon fundamentals of the natural world, and yet our experience of it is so subjective, emotional--indeed, out of joint. In Twelfth Night time is more compressed, but not to the point of continuous action. We have talked a lot about island time, about a small community in mourning where life has been put on pause by Olivia's observance. Just as the aftermath of death is a force that slows time down, love is a force that speeds it up, that disrupts all order so that love's night is noon. Time is also circular; it comes round setting things aright--or as Feste would put it, "and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges."
No wonder one of the songs on my playlist is Bob Dylan's Oh, Sister with the amazing line - "time is an ocean but it ends at the shore, you may not see me tomorrow." Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Oh wait, wrong play, though that one certainly is on our minds as we progress through Hamlet. Opening night may not be tomorrow, but it will come soon and when it comes, we will be ready. See you then.
We are one week into rehearsal and have already shed many a tear and broke into many a giggling fit. In other words, things are going well.
Sunday was our marathon script session with read throughs of both plays and since then we've been dropping in scenes from the first acts of both Hamlet and Twelfth Night. Dropping in is a rehearsal technique used by Shakespeare & Co. that is an alternate way of doing text work. It stimulates the imagination and encourages a profound emotional connection to the words. The ground of the text becomes very real beneath you as does your relationships, questions are illuminated, it's just a tremendously creative way to work. Another thing about the work - there are ghosts in the room - I'm not just talking about the Ghost of Hamlet's father - there are the ghosts of past productions of the plays. There are moments I flash back to the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express touring production that I saw around age 8 or 9 and Ophelia handing out floors as she descended the stairs of the auditorium in Thomas Harrison Middle School. There is the memory of assistant directing the show in high school and the Ghost's distorted voice and all the gun play in our modernized Denmark, and most present of all is the production I directed for Pittsburgh Classic Players back in 2013, I've promised the actors not to talk too much about my last Hamlet, I think they know though that I am doing Hamlet again not to get back to any of those prior Hamlets, no it's that my belief in the vitality of the play is that strong, I could do it twenty times and still have things to find. Meanwhile, over in Illyria where I have fewer experiences though Avital Shira's production for Portland Actors Ensemble a few years back as well as the one from the American Shakespeare Center's Actor's Renaissance Season in 2010 are fond touchstones, I am amazed at how the plays enrich each other. I have always felt the best Twelfth Night's have a tragic tone underneath the comedy as characters like Sir Toby cannot function without drink, as characters like Malvolio seethe with resentment over their rank and all that remains out of their reach, as Orsino struggles to understand love and accept age, as Olivia and Viola mourn for their respective brothers, and as the sad fool returns to his household.
The first day of rehearsal is finally here. It is a little like the first day of school except ten thousand times better.
Today I get to hear the cast read two of Shakespeare's very best plays aloud and get a fuller sense who they are in these parts, what they discover in the words, there will be shades of meaning that never occurred to me and old familiar notes that are a treasure to experience again. It will be the first time we are together and is so often the case with a large ensemble rehearsing over the summer - the last time we will all be met for awhile.
It will also be the first time in the rehearsal space, a beautiful sun filled artist studio on the second story of a converted warehouse out near the train tracks in Portland's Northwest Industrial district. It's a Frida Kahlo blue building with a red rusted gate. A David Bowie poster hangs in the bathroom. It's perfect. Rent for the space is a little less than what we have already raised through the fundraiser and that is a sigh of relief. (And on the subject of fundraisers, there are sixteen days left on ours and Salt and Sage has a little over half of the way to go. Subtle, I know.) Places to play are hard to find in Portland these days and places to prepare even harder. It will be nice not to have to hop from one spot to another each rehearsal as I'd originally imagined. Having a room where the small library of concordances and editions of each play can be left along with a chest of props and cups for tea is going to take a lot of stress out of the marathon that is rehearsing two plays in repertory while also maintaining full time employment outside of the arts.
Hamlet and Twelfth Night are going to be such a joy to explore and share with Portland audiences. Even though one may have seen both several times over, the two plays together spark a different understanding as the two reverberate within one another: Malvolio's imprisonment and Hamlet's suspected madness; Viola's loss of her brother, Sebastian, and Laertes' loss of his sister, Ophelia, the strong widows, Olivia and Gertrude. Over the last few weeks I've binged Mozart in the Jungle and directing Shakespeare feels very akin to conducting classical music in that yes you are participating in a lineage that stretches back hundreds of years but as long as you and the players are passionate about the material; it will be daring as there are only as many ways to experience loss and love as there are to be human.
Why two plays? Why these two plays?
Because the pairing of Midsummer Night’s Dream and All’s Well That Ends Well interests me more than either play does on its own. The two plays call to one another in the figure of a central female protagonist pursuing an unrequited love, determined to make a heaven of hell. They even share a name: Helena.
One could argue that this parallel, though striking, is insignificant. After all, Shakespeare repeated names throughout the canon, and unrequited affection is one of the basic building blocks of romantic plot. But if that were all, I doubt Midsummer and All’s Well would have stayed so rich an investigation as to seduce me into directing both at once.
Midsummer Helena wins Demetrius with the aid of Oberon, the fairy King; All’s Well Helena wins Bertram by curing the King of France. Although All’s Well is far more frank in the nakedly transactional nature of the betrothal, the unions in both plays are problematic. Midsummer Helena is unaware of Oberon’s intervention, granting her an innocence All’s Well Helena lacks. Yet as Demetrius leaves the woods with the love juice still in his eye, he is as manipulated into the play’s happy finale as Bertram.
Sympathizing with Demetrius and Bertram, how can one love Helena? Easily. Both characters are charming in the fervor of their passions and keenness of their intellects. Neither means to harm anyone and both set out within the confines of their circumstances to set things right. Midsummer Helena may prove the more admirable as she gives up her Demetrius while All’s Well Helena forces her husband’s hand through a bed trick, which though a despicable act makes for a wondrous (and ridiculous) conclusion to the fairytale.
Feeling firm in the conviction that the two plays shared a spine, my imagination turned to what it meant for Shakespeare to have returned to this examination of unrequited love. I say return as scholars commonly date Midsummer as penned at some point between 1594 to 1597 and All’s Well as 1602 to 1606. Did Shakespeare see by making the first Helena an unknowing beneficiary of Oberon’s magic he had side-stepped a potent ethical quandary? Did he want to revisit the subject of choosing love by another’s eyes in the context of an aging court?
In pursuit of that question, enamored of both plays and their inhabitants, I find myself in rehearsals for both plays. Juggling the two has turned out to be one of the most joyous experiences I have ever had in the theater. I feel a bit like Puck when Lysander and Helena enter the part of the wood where Demetrius lies sleeping: “Then will two at once woo one / That must needs be sport alone / And those things do best please me / That befall preposterously.” Something preposterous runs contrary to reason or common sense, and directing two shows on a shoe string budget in eight weeks’ time is at first blush an absurd undertaking. It’s a big risk.
It’s also one I now plan to undertake again. The joy of directing two plays in rep is that it transforms the experience from that of directing a cast to directing a company. The investment is different as all actors step into leading and supporting roles. The multiplicity of scenes and combinations of partners means almost everyone takes a turn with almost everyone else, as opposed to the pattern of most plays where an actor gets to the end of rehearsal and realizes they have only played with about half the ensemble. And then there is the infinite reward of exploring each play in its own right and in its relation to the other.
We have two and a half more weeks of rehearsal to refine this madness for your pleasure, then three weeks of performances to share. Hope to see you there!
5 Things to Know in connection to The Insatiate Countess
1. The Insatiate Countess is loosely based on the execution of Bianca Maria, Countess of Challant, for adultery in 1526. Italian author Matteo Bandello wrote of the incident in Novelle, 1554 which François Belleforest translated into French in 1565. William Painter used Belleforest's text as the basis for his inclusion of the Bianca Maria story in his collection, The Palace of Pleasure, 1567. Painter's account was Marston's principal source.
2. The first publication of The Insatiate Countess was in 1613 which happens to be the year that King James granted Frances Howard an annulment of her marriage to Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, so she could marry Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset. Two years later she would stand trial for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, an opponent to her marriage to Carr, who died around the time of Howard's remarriage. Frances and her waiting woman, Anne Turner, were found guilty of poisoning him, though only Anne was executed. How the Overbury scandal impacted the theaters (Jacobean drama had already taken a turn for the licentious) is a matter of scholarly speculation.
3. Part of the ritual of execution in Early Modern England was the penitent speech, which the criminal gave on the scaffold, and which was published as both a deterrent and evidence of state power. As an example, Anne Turner's Tears, recounts Turner's final words.
4. The Children of the Queen's Revel's were the first to perform The Insatiate Countess, which makes sense given that the repertory of the boys companies tended to the more satiric and erotic.
5. John Marston only wrote the initial draft of The Insatiate Countess. William Barksted and Lewis Machin finished the play.
John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont’s The Maid’s Tragedy is a sensuous, sensational, and subversive play with a plot worthy of a romance novel and dialogue worthy of the highest poetic accolades. The set up is simple. When the King commands Amintor marry Evadne, sister to the soldier Melantius, despite Amintor’s engagement to Aspatia, he sparks a fire in his court that threatens to consume his kingdom as love and loyalty lead to insurrection. It is a drama filled with the sacred and the profane where vows have the weight of souls and no one is above mockery.
The Maid’s Tragedy is the second offering in Salt and Sage’s Sex Tragedy Saturday Staged Reading series and we hope you will join us for this wicked and juicy bit of Jacobean drama! Saturday November 16th at The Backdoor Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 2 pm. Tickets $5. Cash only.
Cast includes: Jason Maniccia, Orion J. Bradshaw, Sara Fay Goldman, Arthur Delaney, Wendy Alexandra, Matt Pavik, Grant Davis, Jake Rossman, Scott Fullerton, Kate Belden, and Sarah Peters.
I spent the past two months directing Romeo and Juliet at a high school, as part of Portland Playhouse's Fall Festival of Shakespeare. We closed last weekend, after three performances at their school and a culminating event at the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, as part of a two-day marathon of eight high schools performing in rapid succession, laughing for each other, crying with each other, and cheering each other on. The following Monday, I met with my students for a final time, for all of us to share some feedback on the experience of making a play together, in the context of eight high schools and a collaborative process. After breaking the ice with some general remarks like "it was really fun" and "I'm going to miss you guys so much," one brave student shared with us how her sister had died when she was twelve, and ever since then, she had felt like she could never be herself and didn't fit in anywhere -- until this experience, where she found a family and a support system where she felt safe and loved and accepted for who she was. This story spurred a slew of honest sharing that tended to fall into three categories: stories about loss/pain and finding hope again, stories about what "family" means, and stories about finding a sense of belonging. My Shakespeare students created a stunning piece of art beyond their age and experience. And, through creative collaboration, they learned lessons about trust, friendship, acceptance, hope, and support.
Salt and Sage is pressing forward, through our Sex Tragedy Reading Series, The Twelve Dates of Christmas, and then to Great Falls in January. Asae is a work horse, accomplishing more than seems humanly possible, and I'm doing what I can to keep up. Sometimes, it feels like far too much. But I know there are things much bigger than me at work in this art we create. I witnessed them in my students this fall, and I feel them when I dive into acting, the art I love.