Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review : "Teaching Will" by Mel Ryane

So the other day, the good people at Familius wrote and asked if I'd like a review copy of Mel Ryane's "Teaching Will : What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me that Hollywood Couldn't". A book about an actress who starts a Shakespeare Club at the local elementary school? How could I resist?

Having gone into my own children's classrooms since they were in the first grade (which would translate to maybe six years old, for my non US audience), I admit that I was looking for tips. All I ever do is a one time unit on some Shakespearean topic of the teacher's choice, I've never had the guts (nor the opportunity) to set up a full length after school program, culminating in a performance. This is exactly what the author does.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: my POV for stuff like this is always, "I'm in it for the Shakespeare." The Shakespeare bits will exert their force on me like a magnet. The more Shakespeare, the more drawn I am into the book.

Having said that, there's not much Shakespeare in this. This is primarily a book about the author's adventures in trying to teach these children how to work together to achieve something that they and most everyone else thinks is beyond their abilities. But it could just as easily have been about teaching them how to sing, or play baseball. A scene where a child finally "gets" the rhythm of iambic pentameter might as well have been the scene where the catcher finally manages to get the cut off throw to second in time to tag the runner.

Perhaps my baseball analogy isn't completely fair, however, because that makes it more about competition. You'd expect the big climax of a baseball story to be the ragtag team of misfits winning the big game. Shakespeare is not about competing with anyone or anything, except maybe your own limiting beliefs about what you can accomplish.

The big climax of this story is the performance at the end of the year. With each chapter comes a week of rehearsal, chaos and catastrophe, and I spent the entire book thinking, "She'll never pull this off." Half the time it was impossible to tell who was playing each role because half her students quit and the other half refuse to play the parts they are given. It seemed like every chapter ended with the author going home to her dinner with her husband, sipping a glass of wine and pondering why she'd gotten herself into this in the first place.

A few words on that subject. The book really tells three stories. First is the attempt to put on a Shakespeare performance (A Midsummer Nights' Dream, by the way, if that wasn't your obvious first guess). The second is the "behind the scenes" story where we learn all about the author's interactions with the kids, their own family situations, and basically all about life outside Shakespeare Club. Which kids hate each other, and why? Which parents are supportive of the idea and which are just using it as glorified daycare? It probably should not come as a surprise that this had to be a ... what's the politically correct term to use here ... ethnically diverse, lower income, dare I say "inner city" environment? Nobody ever seems to want to tell the story of upper middle income white kids? I admit to making the comparison to Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, only with elementary school children. I hope that doesn't sound racist of me. It comes from a POV that I can't escape. When I walk into a classroom and try to teach Shakespeare to kids I will not have to deal with those issues. I respect and appreciate that somebody is doing it, hey, more power to them. But it makes the story less relevant to my own life. If I went into this book looking for tips about how to wrangle children into performing Shakespeare, too much time was spent hitting me over the head with "yes but don't forget where these kids come from and the other issues they have to deal with". That's true of every kid. Just because their stories are different doesn't mean that they don't all bring something unique to the party.

The third story is that of the author's childhood and her relationship to her own parents. I just plain didn't care for these bits. Whose story are you most interested in telling? I would have preferred more content about the actual play rehearsals. I suppose it's only now that I realize the subtitle of the book is "What Shakespeare and 10 kids gave *me*..." so perhaps that was really her goal all along? If so, I clearly missed it.

But, back to the story. I approached the end of the book, the performance was only a week away, students were still fighting and dropping out and chaos still reigned. Through the entire book I'd been saying, "This is a failure, and it will end." It did not. The show must go on, and it did. It's not a big movie scene with the whole town packed into the auditorium. On the contrary, the author goes to great lengths to let us know that some of the parents could hardly be bothered to show up at all. The performance goes exactly as expected, mistakes are made, lines forgotten, props dropped, and generally the chaos of rehearsal projects itself upon the stage, exactly like you'd expect in any other elementary school production.

"When it was over, we all cheered."

I admit with no shame that my eyes watered and my vision became blurry the instant I read that. Hell it's happening again just recalling it so I can write this. Good god, isn't that what it's all about? They're kids for heaven's sake. Of course it's not perfect. It's not about perfection, it's about accomplishment. They didn't quit. The author didn't quit. As a parent I know that feeling of cheering your brains out not for the quality of your child's performance, but for the very fact that it's your kid up on that stage, showcasing not how well they did it, but that they did it at all. That's something to cheer indeed.

"Hamlet's on my nuts!"

Ok, I'm not telling where that line shows up, I'll just say that the book is not over at the performance of Midsummer, and when I got to this part I laughed so hard I cried all over again. I'm glad I excused myself from the room to finish the book, otherwise my friends and family would have thought I'd gone mad.

I get that this was not a handbook in how to teach Shakespeare to elementary school children (though I would have liked that very much). It took me most of the book to accept that. As I said at the beginning, the Shakespeare content is a magnet to me. Every scene or line that snuck its way into the text made me want more, and it was difficult not getting that. I think that Ms. Ryane's story is an excellent one, very well told, and I'm very glad that it had a happy ending. I just wonder how important Shakespeare is to that story.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review : The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth

When Bardfilm showed me his early review copy of The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth I was all, "Awwww!  Want."

Then Ian wrote and asked if I wanted a copy as well and I was all, "Yay!"

This ... can we call it a graphic novel? Tells the story of animals in the zoo putting on a performance of Macbeth.  Not only do you see the audience, the audience interacts with the show in a series of inset panels, commenting on the action and making various puns and other jokes. This has been done before (Marcia Williams' books come to mind) but I like it even more here, because it doesn't overpower the story. The audience gets a single panel at most, in context with the rest of the flow of dialogue. You don't feel as if one story is talking over the other.

This is a very kid safe version of the story. Macbeth, a lion, does not kill people - he eats them (apparently whole, as they keep talking to him from inside his belly). There is no blood, there's ketchup (and lots of it). Lady Macbeth, forced to do her husband's laundry, cannot seem to get the ketchup stains out and this drives her a bit crazy.  As people begin to notice Macbeth's increasing waistline, they start asking questions and he starts overeating.   The best part is that somehow Lendler manages to give us a happy ending, while staying pretty true to the original story (including a nice twist on the "not borne of woman" thing).

The best praise I can offer comes from my son, who is 8. Right now we are going through a tough time getting him to read. He sees it as a chore, and no matter what we put before him, he'll kick and scream and go through the same routine even though he knows it never gets him anywhere. It's worse than pulling teeth.

Well, when this book showed up I brought it to him and said, "You and I need to read this book. This is a big deal, because the man who wrote this book knows that I have kids, and that my kids like Shakespeare, and he thought we might like to read his book and write a review of it so other people can decide if they might like it."  At first, without opening the book, he gave me the same eye roll and drooped shoulders I've become so familiar with.  But I persisted, and said that we should sit down and read Act 1 together, which we did.

The next day, before I went off to work, I told my son, "Don't feel as if you have to wait for me, you know. I know that story. You can go ahead and read it without me." Fast forward to later that night when I returned?  He tells me, "I finished the Macbeth book, Daddy. I like books like that, get more of those." Not completely ready to trust that it had been that easy, I asked him to tell me the story. He told me of how Macbeth's friend "Banksy" talked to much and got eaten, and how Macbeth's wife had to do so much of his laundry to get the ketchup stains out that she used up all the soap in the castle, and how "Detective" Macduff eventually solved the mystery ... but I'm not going to spoil the story for anybody. :)

Ian tells me that Romeo and Juliet is already planned, and I can't wait. This one may not score highly on the classic Shakespeare scale, but I'm ok with that. I'd rather have a book like this that has my kids asking for more, than a more advanced book that I feel like they're only reading to keep me happy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Does Rosalind Woo Herself?

"Self-wooing, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting."
The local teen group is performing As You Like It at our local library today, so I've been brushing up on the story. Since it's so common to make the Robin Hood connection with Duke Senior (going off to live in the safety of the forest, away from his enemies, enjoying life with his friends, etc..) I was wondering whether a comparison existed with another classic story, Cyrano De Bergerac.

For those not familiar with the story, Cyrano loves Roxanne but cannot bring himself to tell her his true feelings. She loves Christian, but Christian has no skill at poetry and is afraid to woo her, so Cyrano literally hides in the shadows and feeds Christian romantic things to say to her, effectively wooing Roxanne for himself, in Christian's name.

How does this compare to As You Like It?  Let's look.  Rosalind is dressed up as the boy Ganymede when she runs into Orlando. Orlando acknowledges that he loves the lady Rosalind, but does not have the kind of poetry to woo her. Rosalind, as Ganymede, tells him what to say to get the girl.

It's got some similarities -- Cyrano hiding in the bushes is very much like Rosalind hiding under the disguise of Ganymede.  "But!" Bardfilm points out, "Cyrano's intent was never to teach Christian how to woo Roxanne, but to win her himself."

This is true. But still, are they all that different? Rosalind has this idea of her dream man, and knows exactly what he will say and do to woo her.  Orlando is basically the mannequin in this story going through the motions of turning Rosalind's dreams into reality. She plays both the role of Cyrano and Roxanne, and Orlando is literally the middle man. She can't marry herself. She needs a man. So she turns Orlando into the man that she wants, without him ever realizing it.

I don't know, maybe it's a silly idea, but sometimes those are fun too.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Shakespearean Ice Bucket Challenges

Weeks ago, maybe you saw a few of your friends dumping buckets of ice water over their heads on Facebook. Then sports figures, politicians, and celebrities. I even saw Kermit the Frog do one, which I thought was hysterical -- "Being an amphibian, dumping an ice cold bucket of water over my head could very likely put me into a dormant state where my heart my actually stop."

Of course it's all to spread the message to Stop ALS, so it's all for a good cause.

Your Favorite Shakespeareans Tackle the Ice Bucket Challenge

Let's start with Nathan Fillion, who gets modern day credit for being a Shakespearean thanks to his portrayal of Dogberry in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing .

He calls out Tom Hiddleston, who took up the challenge:

He in turn nominates Benedict Cumberbatch and Helena Bonham Carter. Mr. Cumberbatch is about to tackle Hamlet, while Ms. Bonham-Carter has a number of credits, including Ophelia to Mel Gibson's 1990 Hamlet.  (He also nominated Luke Evans. Now, I don't know who that is, but I'll come back to it in a minute.  Trust me.)

So here's Mr. Cumberbatch making the best faces, doing it naked:

And now Ms. Bonham Carter, who doesn't even get out her speech before the dude behind her can't wait any longer.

But why should all these youngsters have the fun?  Sir Ian himself also played the game after being nominated by ... Luke Evans.  See how everything is deeply intertwingled?

I don't know who nominated Dame Judi Dench, but I love that she still looks and sounds like a queen even when getting doused:

Alas, Sir Patrick Stewart does not want to play. Or, rather, he opts to write a big check and instead puts his ice where it belongs, in his glass.  That would be funnier if I didn't have such a huge list of his contemporaries playing along.

Finally, there's this guy, even though he forgot his line. Consider yourselves challenged.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Look! A Shakespeare Smiley!

I was flipped through the First Folio today (ya know, like ya do) because I'd become intrigued over the spelling of people's names.  I noticed for the first time that the web navigator I work with had a page labelled "Names of the Actors" deep near the end, next to Antony and Cleopatra, and I got excited.  Ooo!  Is that a list of which actors played which roles?

Nope, alas, it is just what we now see referred to as the "Dramatis Personae", the list of characters in the play.  In this case it's actually at the end of the previous play, Othello. Not really "names of actors", I feel ripped off.

But then I noticed this:

What the heck is that sequence of symbols under the heading? Looks like two smilies (or emoticons if you kids are calling it that these days) facing opposite directions. But what of the stars in the middle? It's not even three in a row, two of them are super scripted. Looks a little bit like a skull face.

I'm going to call it Othello and Desdemona, kept apart by the demonic Iago.

Who's got a better interpretation? Does this kind of sequence appear elsewhere? I checked a few pages and did not see it.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Twelfth Night, Eleventh Year ... and First Gay Sir Andrew?

Once again it's time for Commonwealth Shakespeare on Boston Common! This makes my eleventh year attending, and this year Twelfth Night is the show.

Unlike last year's fiasco (part 1, part 2) there's not much of a story in getting to the show this year. In fact it worked out quite well as we had plans to visit some friends of my wife who live in the same town as my parents.  Visit friends, drop kids off at my parents for a sleepover, and we head into Boston!  It rained during the day, but pretty much cleared up by show time.

This year we forego our usual takeout picnic from the local Chinese place and instead opt for "Earl's Sandwiches" (or perhaps the more obvious Earl of Sandwich) that is located right on the Common.  While waiting in line I start talking to another woman about past shows that have been rained out, and I speak of my curse at having missed the 2005 Hamlet.  "Oh," she says, "That one was excellent!"

Son of a ...!! Every year!  I have yet to meet someone who says, "I missed that one too."

Ok, on with the show. Context - I've never seen a production of Twelfth Night. I've read the play, read books about the play, seen portions of a movie version, but never a live production.  With that in mind...

We open with the shipwreck, which I quite like. Sebastian and Viola hanging out together on "the ship", which is really just the upper balcony-type area, surrounded by white billowy sails covering the entire back wall.  Instrumental music, the sound of waves.  As the storm begins our two come out to the main stage, surrounded by sailors, and life jackets are passed around. A sort of dance begins as the "sails" slide down and cover the stage, rising and falling around them, eventually sweeping them up and carrying them in separate directions.   So far so good!

While the remnants of the shipwreck are still on stage, Duke Orsino appears above (where Sebastian and Viola began) for "If music be the food of love..."  Interesting enough.  Then we cut back to Viola and the Captain.

Now, Viola's just survived a shipwreck. Her brother is missing. She has no idea where she is. I'd think she'd be at least a little ... timid?  Confused? I guess I expected something out of her little more than a whisper, but what I got was "WHAT COUNTRY FRIENDS IS THIS! WHAT SHOULD I DO IN ILLYRIA!" like her hearing aid battery had died. Yeow.  Maybe that was the sound guy's issue, or maybe she was trying too hard to project over what was still the noise of the crowd settling down. Unfortunately it set the tone for me that I did not like this Viola. She was ... abrasive? I always thought of her as a lost child, dependent on whatever the Captain tells her.  This Viola was in fact so confident in everything she said that, during intermission, I heard the person in front of us ask his friends, "Yes, but at the beginning, they clearly know each other, yes? The man says where they are and who rules and she says that her family knows them."

Excuse me while I jump around a bit. I'm always more interested in talking about characters than plot, and I don't always get them in the order they appeared.

Sir Toby just goes for the "drunk all the time" thing. This is disappointing in a number of ways. He enters slurring most of his lines...but then during the scene he says everything clearly. Which is it?  He also resorts to fart jokes, which I don't think was particularly necessary. Cheap laugh.

Image via @commshakes on Twitter
Speaking of cheap laughs, let's talk about Sir Andrew. As I said, I've never seen the play. I guess I always imagined something of a Falstaff-lite drunken old fat knight just lounging around and having things brought to him?  What I got was every old gay stereotype you've ever seen, and then some. Our very skinny Andrew, with a blonde mohawk, enters in his bright pink suit (with some sort of flowered shirt underneath) and proceeded to prance and lisp his way through it all. Really? Talk about cheap laughs, these were cheap bordering on offensive.  It's still funny to have the gay guy kick up his heels in a little happy dance every now and then? Or to disguise himself with a headscarf and big alien sunglasses so he looks like Jackie Kennedy?

When I got home at 11pm that night I immediately pinged Bardfilm to ask, "Is Sir Andrew often played gay?"

"No," he said, confused, "The opposite is probably more likely."

I don't know what the director was thinking, truly.  If you didn't know that Sir Andrew is supposed to be courting Olivia, you would have had no clue. It was far easier to believe that Toby was going through a bit of a midlife crisis and had invited his boy toy over for the weekend.

For everything that bugged me about Toby and Andrew, I quite liked Feste. He was precisely what I expected, going with a sort of "hobo" version of the clown with a raggedy-looking suit and hat, bells on his ankles, sometimes entering banging his own drum. He delivered his lines clearly, and they made sense.  The way he just kept showing up, and occasionally being called upon to sing, he was almost like a narrator/chorus, just drifting through the story.

Of course, everybody wants to know about Malvolio. He was played by Fred Sullivan, Jr. who I take the time to name because I love this guy as the company clown. He's our Will Kempe. I've seen him play Bottom, Jaques, Parolles... I only wish I could see him play Dogberry I expect he'd knock it out of the park.

But, again, expectations are a funny thing. I always thought of Malvolio as a sort of gangling type, tall and skinny and all limbs, with a snooty voice that immediately makes you go to words like "hifalutin". Fred's not that. Fred's a big dude, so we get this guy who looks like he can be scary when he wants to.  When Viola/Cesario refers to him as Olivia's giant, it makes perfect sense. If he wants to pick her/him up and toss him/her out the front door, she/he's going flying.

Alas, his humor this year is in the screaming. Later when Toby and crew are having a drunken time and Malvolio breaks it up, he screams everything like he's going to blow a blood vessel and drop dead on the spot.

It's as if "over the top" is the slogan for this production, because everything is 10x what it probably could have been. Don't just be drunk, be fall down slurring your words drunk. Don't just laugh, cackle long and loud like you can't breathe. Don't just be upset, be red faced spitting your words gonna have a heart attack upset.

The theme continues when Malvolio finds the letter. I admit, this scene is hysterical. But again, in that over the top way. Every two seconds, Toby and the Scooby Doo bunch are trying to "hide" on stage but never stop laughing so loud that my wife turns to me and says, "He's really not supposed to hear them?" And of course the reading of the letter takes 10x longer than it probably should.  The whole "M,O,A,I" sequence just goes on and on as he tries to work it out.  "Mooohhhhhaaahhhheeeeeee...... moooooohigh...... mmmmmaaaahhh...... mumumumomomommeeemeeemymymy...moo! Moomoo! mama! Miami!"  The final "EVERY ONE OF THESE LETTERS ARE IN MY NAME!" is funny thanks to Shakespeare's material, not the delivery.

Fred comes back around, though, once he's in the "dark room" (which in this case is a tiny cage that he can't even stand up in, with both a blindfold and a hood).  Now he's just a miserable sot who doesn't understand what's going on around him, trying to explain that there's been a misunderstanding, he is not out of his mind. I honestly would have to go double check the script to find the details, but if you told me that Feste takes pity on him and reveals the whole joke, I'd believe it. That's a compliment to both Feste's role as well as Malvolio's, as they turn so quickly from giggling idiots to "Wow, look what we did to this fellow human being."

What of Olivia? I've always imagined a younger play, where Duke Orsino is this old rich guy who just wants to be in love and be married, and Olivia is young and not ready to be tied down to a guy like that. All the more reason why she falls so quickly for Cesario, who is closer to her own age and personality. What I got was an Olivia who looked and acted like she'd already been divorced and was now a cougar on the prowl.

And the rest?  I realize, when I watch through my wife's eyes, that this play suffers from too many minor characters. You've got characters like Curio and Valentine who are around early enough that the new audience is left to wonder, "Who are they, are they important?" but they're really not. Meanwhile Fabian, who is important, just kind of shows up several scenes in and you're left to wonder "Now who's that guy?"

They did what they could to keep Sebastian and Antonio fresh in the audience's mind, but there's not much to work with. When they finally show up for the important plot points to move forward, you have to take a second and say "Wait, now, who's that guy again?"

All in all, I'm pretty disappointed. After Two Gents last year, I heard they were doing Twelfth Night and found myself telling everyone, "Now, see, this is going to be a good one." I think the material is strong. Lots of quotes that people will recognize, lots of opportunities to be funny. What we got, from the fart jokes to the gay stereotypes, seemed like it didn't have enough faith either in the audience or the material.