July 2005 Issue
Brush Up Your Shakespeare
The Bard's plays transcend time. See for yourself at theater festivals around Ohio.
Be it hereby decreed: 'Tis the season to stop giving the Bard the bird. Lest you've forgotten, that's Shakespeare -- the English gent with whom so many former students can recall having a love-hate relationship during literature class.
|The Play's the Thing
Does Shakespeare's prose leave you dazed and confused? Take a tup or two from the pros:
To read or not to read: There are many guides and essays about the best way to understand Shakespeare's plays, and usually a playbill filled with factoids is available at the performance. Terry Burgler, co-artistic director of the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, recommends forgoing the cramming. "If you're really trying to put yourself through a long and grinding purpose of winning some appreciation for Shakespeare, go ahead and prepare," he says. "But if you can't follow what the players are doing, the company is not doing its job."
Friends, Romans, countrymen: When it comes to finding a good festival, Burgler says word-of-mouth is the best measure. "Talk to people who have gone to a festival multiple times and ask if they consistently had a good time," he says.
Woe is me: According to Andrew May, associate artistic director of Cleveland's Great Lakes Theater Festival, the first moments of any Shakespeare play are the most critical to comprehend. "That's the time when you have to get your mind in sync with the rhythm of the language," he explains. "If you take those first minutes to use all of your energy to focus, everything else will make total sense, if it's a good company."
I have a kind of alacrity in sinking: "The biggest problem with Shakespeare is that people take him too seriously," laments Ray Lischner, actor and co-author of Shakespeare for Dummies (Wiley Publishing Inc., $19.99) "It's amazing how much you'll understand if you just relax and watch."
It's hard not to wince at the memory of those crash courses in all things Shakespeare that were college requirements. Who can forget the forerunner of the free-weight, The Riverside Shakespeare, a voluminous 1,918-page, 5-pound hard-bound tome that persnickety professors made us schlep to class every day.
Years later, it still can be tough to differentiate a thee from a thou. (After all, Shakespeare has entire books devoted to him in the "For Dummies" and "Idiot's Guide" series of "how-to" books.)
But fear not. Help is at hand. Summer school is in session as a slew of Ohio theater companies present their takes on these lofty tales, and share tips on how to appreciate them. No pop quiz given, no term paper required.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival
Summer playbill: "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)," July 21-August 7. A roller-coaster romp through 37 plays in 93 minutes, featuring three men -- who rap, cook and cross-dress -- and a skull. A real scream. Created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a three-man comedy team known for also whittling the Bible and the history of western civilization down to CliffsNotes size, the show has played to packed houses in London's Criterion Theatre for the past nine years.
"There's no reason Shakespeare shouldn't be fun," says festival artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips. "This is the perfect production to prove that point. And it's a great introduction to our company."
The 30-year-old Pittsburgh native, who's been with the ensemble for seven seasons, admits that, like a lot of kids, he was bored with Shakespeare in high school. A trip to the Stratford Festival of Canada while in college at Morehead State University changed that mind-set. "We saw six plays in four days, and I was blown out of the water by what they were doing," he recalls.
The thespian has played a variety of characters throughout his theatrical career, but it's Shakespeare's plots that captivate Phillips today.
"It's incredible how many layers there are to each play," he explains. "There's a character or subplot that speaks to you no matter where you're from or how old you are. We live in a culture that contains a lot of flaky sit-coms and music videos. Shakespeare's stuff is so rich and deep and textured that you can dig into it again and again by reading it or seeing it, and find something new every time."
He cites "Julius Caesar" -- which the company is staging February 16 through March 12, 2006 -- as a prime example.
"The plot is very simple: There's a leader who's in charge of a democracy, there's a fear that he's becoming a dictator and the people around him take matters in their own hands.
"It's as relevant today as it was 400 years ago when it was written."
The Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival Theatre, 719 Race St., Cincinnati; 513/381-BARD, www.cincyshakes.com. Other Shakespeare productions in the 2005-2006 season: "Titus Andronicus," "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Richard III."
Great Lakes Theater Festival, Cleveland
Summer playbill: "The Merry Wives of Windsor," July 29-September 1. The season extends into the fall with "As You Like It," September 30-October 22. Great Lakes Theater Festival associate artistic director Andrew May describes "The Merry Wives of Windsor" as "Shakespeare writes for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz," where the women outsmart the men every time. The play, explains May, was written solely because the roly-poly, cowardly knight Falstaff -- who also appeared in the Bard's King Henry IV plays -- was a favorite character of audiences. "It's sort of like giving Jackie Gleason his own show," May says.
"As You Like It" takes sibling rivalry to new dimensions. Although it's set in the Forest of Arden, May says the festival's version symbolizes "the ways we get lost in our daily lives, whether at the mall or at the airport, or between here and there."
"Complicated." "Boring." "Tedious." "Too educational." When it comes to Shakespeare, May has heard every negative adjective imaginable, both from students seeing their first play to avid theater aficionados who much prefer Broadway musicals. And he understands their reaction.
"Shakespeare can be scary," May admits. But, he says, the problem is usually with the performance, not the play.
Take Shakespeare's soliloquy from "Hamlet." "There's a certain ringing of the voice that happens when people are ACTING," May explains, which turns "To be or not to be that is the question" into something alienating.
"But if the actor just talks it, in a normal conversational tone, the meaning is so much clearer," he says. "When I direct, I keep that in mind. People always come out feeling really smart. They say, 'Wow, I totally got it and I didn't expect to.' "
May, 44, who's been with the company for four seasons, didn't feel he was destined for a life on the boards during his high-school days as a cross-country champ in Wheaton, Illinois. But when the severe pain of Osgood-Schlatter disease sidelined him during his sophomore year, May found his niche in a new pursuit.
"I was forced to watch a drama class. I thought, 'Oh please don't make me do this. ...'"
By the time the casts came off, he was hooked. Drama and the debate club replaced time on the track.
The beauty of Shakespeare, May explains, is that his work doesn't demand the movielike focus characteristic of modern theater.
"Shakespeare allows gaps here and there. He sets the stage but allows you to freely use your imagination," May says. "And if the actors are good enough, and if it's a good enough production, and you're willing to suspend disbelief, you can partake of a verbal fest that's true magic."
The Great Lakes Theater Festival, Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square Center, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland; 216/241-6000, www.greatlakestheater.org
Actors' Theatre Columbus
Summer playbill: "Much Ado About Love," through July 10, a review of Shakespeare's most romantic scenes compiled by artistic director John S. Kuhn; "Romeo and Juliet," July 14-August 7, the famous tear-jerker filled with of love and loss.
The flames of passion are being fueled in Columbus this month and next with love stories ending in tragedy and heated battles between the sexes in which all's well that ends well.
To Frank Barnhart, executive director of Actors' Theatre Columbus, the troupe staging these works, it's this potpourri of feelings followed by decisive action that makes Shakespeare so compelling.
"His characters are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in so many situations to be able to achieve what they want," explains Barnhart, now in his second season with the company. "So as a performer, as a reader of Shakespeare, or as a member of the audience, if you allow yourself to get caught up in what's going on, it can really increase your appreciation of the work."
All productions are performed outdoors at Columbus' Schiller Park. Add a picnic supper and the stage is set for an enjoyable evening.
"One of our goals is to make theater accessible," says Barnhart, 44, who directed last season's production of "A Comedy of Errors," which was set in 1930s Appalachia. This year, there's "Romeo and Juliet," a timeless tale of star-crossed lovers that's been retold in a variety of ways through the ages, ranging from ballet to the Broadway musical and movie, "West Side Story."
"We're all familiar with the story of what these young people do for love and to be with each other," Barnhart says.
Actors' Theatre Columbus, 1000 City Park Ave., Columbus; 614/444-6888, www.theactorstheatre.org. No tickets are required for these free performances.