Monday, September 15, 2014

As You Like It, by Rebel Shakespeare

I love it when I get to talk about Rebel Shakespeare. For almost 25 years Keri Ellis Cahill has been teaching generations of children of all ages how to understand, love and appreciate Shakespeare. The first time I wandered out to their home on Winter Island (Salem, Massachusetts) and heard kids shouting "Thank you, Shakespeare!" into the universe, so loud it echoed back at them, I was hooked.

Unfortunately the Rebels are over an hour away from me, which makes it difficult to see their shows. That is, until I made arrangements with my local library to bring the Rebels to us!  Ever since, I've looked forward to when the stars align and my family vacation schedule is free that particular week in the middle of summer when the show comes to town. You know that scene in Hamlet when the players roll into town?  It's a little like that.  I haven't used them to exact any vengeance plots, however.  Yet.

This year the show is As You Like It. Our forest, it appears, will be a plethora of coat racks.  Interesting. At first I think that they've come upon these props this very day at the library, but later when I go see the show outside and they're still using them I realize that this was part of the plan all along. Our "trees" are arranged between scenes accordingly - when somebody needs to come bursting through them they are bunched together, when characters are supposed to walk among them they are made more sparse, and a couple of times they were lined up like a wall behind the action so we could focus on the characters and not the scenery.

Something fascinating about the staging of this production is that the entire cast was on stage at all times.  Not center stage, but in chairs circling the room so that the audience could plainly see them at all times. When they needed to enter they stood and entered, when they needed to exit they sat back down. They paid attention to the action, laughed at the jokes, and in no way tried to hide their actions from the audience.

Then an amazing thing happened. During the first major break in the scenery, when everybody has explained their reasons for running into the forest and now we're going to switch the action to primarily inside the forest? The entire cast got up and started to sing. Trunks were opened, costumes appeared, and everyone started changing right there on stage, singing all the while. Doubled actors were plainly shown to be doubled actors. Clothes, clothes, everywhere clothes, hung upon the coat racks as if leaves, suddenly transporting us to a deeper part of the forest.  And then just like that? They sit back down, the scene resumes, and we are in the middle of Arden Forest.

I LOVED IT. I loved it so much that I assumed there had to be a name for it, and sought out my research assistant Bardfilm to confirm my suspicions.  "Definitely sounds Brechtian," he wrote, "Epic theatre."


The purpose of this technique was to make the audience feel detached from the action of the play, so they do not become immersed in the fictional reality of the stage or become overly empathetic of the character. Flooding the theater with bright lights (not just the stage), having actors play multiple characters, having actors also rearrange the set in full view of the audience and "breaking the fourth wall" by speaking to the audience...
They didn't go for the full "breaking the fourth wall" effect of speaking to the audience, but many of the other elements were clearly there.

The show itself is quite good, and my kids enjoy it. I thought the staging of the Orlando/Charles fight was particularly innovative, as the entire cast gathered around to watch, shouting, "Charles! Charles! Charles!" Only...their shouts echoed what was happening.  So when Charles threw Orlando it was "CHARLES!!!" but when Orlando threw Charles it was, "Charles?!"  Hard to explain without seeing it, but imagine several minutes of wrestling action punctuated nothing but the Charles chant, and it still worked. At least once I'm pretty sure I heard Rosalind squeak "Orlando!" but she did it so quietly I may have been mistaken.

How about the cast? I wish I had names to give to all the players, but I don't think they print programs. Celia was my favorite, and had to be one of the more experienced Rebels given how confident she was on stage. Even when she was not speaking her occasional shrieks at the action (as in the above wrestling match) made her an unforgettable presence.

Rosalind, rather than playing the giddy giggling school girl I've seen in the past, played it more as a shy tomboy type, which made her transition to Ganymede all the more believable. She already had short hair, so a quick switch from dress to pants and suspenders was all it took. I think I might have preferred a hat, since absolutely nothing was done to disguise her face, but that's just me. It was hard not to think "That's a girl dressed in boy's clothes" but that goes back to the epic theatre thing above, too. Yeah, it is. We know that, just go with it.

Funny story #1 goes here. My girls (10 and 12) saw the show with me at the library, but later that week we took in another outside production one town over, and brought my son who is 8. We came in at the middle, guaranteeing that he would be pretty lost, but I did my best to catch him up.  But, here's the thing.  Silvius in this production was played by a girl (who did a great job, from moping around all sad and forlorn at the beginning to beaming happily once Phoebe had no choice but to marry her. Seriously, you could almost see the "Woohoo!" thought bubble appear over her head, it was adorable).

So, Silvius is on stage with Phoebe and Rosalind/Ganymede and I'm trying to explain this to my son.  "Ok, you see that girl in the green shirt?" (Silvius) I ask.

"Yes," he says.

"She's pretending to be a boy, named Silvius. And Silvius is in love with that girl standing next to him, who is Phoebe."

"Ok, got it," he tells me, "What about that other girl?" (Rosalind)

"Ok, that girl is pretending to be a boy but she's actually a girl."

"Right, I know that, the girl in the green shirt. I mean the other girl in the red shirt."

I realize quickly that this is not going to go well.

"The girl in the green shirt is really in real life a girl but for this show she is pretending to be a boy and everybody knows that she is a boy, ok? So he is in love with the girl in the middle (Phoebe), who is really a girl and is playing a girl. But the girl in the red shirt, who is really a girl in real life is also playing a girl in this play, and the girl in the play is pretending to be a boy. But the girl in the middle is in love with the girl in the red shirt because she thinks she's a boy but the girl in the red shirt know that she can't be in love with her so she is trying to convince the girl in the middle to be in love with the girl in the green shirt who really is a boy."

"I don't get it."

"Yeah, I didn't think you would. Never mind."

Who else.... how could I forget Jaques? He had an interesting character going on, a little something that made me think "carnival barker," mostly because of the hat. He also led all of the songs which were used to transition the scenes. If he'd broken out in "We've got big trouble right here in River City..." it wouldn't have been out of character at all.

Funny story #2?  Before the show I noticed that the play poster described As You Like It as, "The source of many of Shakespeare's most famous quotes, such as 'All the world's a stage...'"  I notice two of the actors (who turn out to be Touchstone and Orlando, though I didn't know that at the time) reading the poster so I ask, "Some of? Can you name another one?" They think about it and can't decide on any other famous AYLI quotes.  "Isn't, 'I do desire that we may be better strangers' from this one?" I ask.

They think about it and decide that no, that's not from this play.  I don't have a text handy but I say I'm pretty sure it is, in the banter between Orlando and Jaques at the river.  Touchstone tells the other actor, "That's your line!  Kind of."

It makes sense in context, because they cut that scene. Bummed me out, because I quite love that scene. They didn't cut it completely, they just edited it down greatly.  "I do not like her name" / "There was no thought of you when she was christened" was still in there, but nothing about better strangers.  Oh well.

Jaques redeemed himself however when Orlando burst into Duke Senior's dinner party demanding, "Forbear and eat no more!" and Jaques replied exactly as you would expect, "I have eat none yet!" as if this raving lunatic that's just jumped out of the trees gets exactly the same attitude he gives to everyone else around him. I laughed out loud.

I wish I could call out every actor by name and sing their praises. I hope they love performing this stuff as much as I love sitting in the audience and experiencing it. I hope that they understand and appreciate how important it is that they are a part of this, and how different their lives will be because of it.  Lots of kids will shoot a bow and arrow during their summer camp, or paddle a kayak, or make friendship bracelets. You're performing Shakespeare. If you can do Shakespeare, you can do anything. I only wish every kid in America got the chance that you've gotten.  Maybe some day.

Keep doing what you're doing, Keri.  Well done, Rebels.

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