The measure of a production…

…or, what about the “Hmm” factor?

Now that the initial reviews are out for the Goodman’s Measure for Measure and I’ve had some time for the show to percolate, I have some thoughts.

(Possible spoilers follow for those who’ve not yet seen the show. You have been warned!)

I liked a good deal of this production: the choice of setting worked very well, with stunning sets, lights, and music. I can get behind accentuating the comic aspects of the text, too, since quite often M4M productions that take themselves too seriously end up being rather dreary. The ensemble movement work between scenes was gorgeous, and some of the acting work was impressive, though some seemed a bit at a loss…and this was where I started “hmm”-ing to myself.

For instance, in the prison scene between the disguised Duke and Claudio, the Duke’s long speech about the miseries of life is often delivered as an attempt to persuade the young man to accept his doom– here it’s given as an introspective rumination, as if the Duke forgets that he has someone to whom he’s supposed to be speaking. By the end of it, Claudio just looks bored, and the audience is generally lost. Similarly, if Claudio is a genuine part of Lucio and Pompey’s world, rather than a nobleman who’s erred, then do his sister’s appeals to honour have any chance at all of working? If not, wouldn’t she know that already? She’s too intelligent to choose a tactic that’s doomed to fail, isn’t she?

I was also left wondering what the purpose of the play’s action was within the framework of the setting– if the Duke is wracked with guilt (as he seems to be) at the play’s outset for letting the law slip so often, why does he let corruption continue while he’s in disguise, why go through the complex intricacies of the bed-trick, why swap one man’s head for another, and why manipulate Isabella so hideously at the end of the play? One of the problems this notorious “problem play” presents is the need for a justification of all these extremes, and this production doesn’t seem to have one. Several of these moments in the show are funny, to be sure, but I was puzzled by what seemed to be a lack of motivation for them besides entertainment.

Which leads me to the ending. Ah, the by-now-famous ending, which attempts to put a radical twist on the work as the curtain falls.

Hmm.

On the one hand, I salute Mr. Falls and the entire cast for wanting to try something new and taking on that challenge. The ending as they’ve staged it certainly fits in with the setting and framework they’ve chosen; plus, it’s guaranteed to have audiences talking about the production for days afterwards (as I and my companions did), which is no small thing.

Yes… and yet, there’s a problem here. For on the other hand, the text of the play sets up a very difficult conundrum for any given cast to solve: how will Isabella choose? For choose she must, but at what cost? Is there even a ‘right’ answer for her? The Goodman’s staging, innovative though it is, simply eliminates the issue entirely, which is a kind of cheating, really: if there is no need to choose, then the fraught nature of the ending vanishes, and the party simply goes on in full swing. We’re no longer faced with the tension of virtue and vice, as a result: vice wins, and everyone dances to Donna Summer while the world remains utterly unchanged by recent events.

If nothing changes, once the music stops and the applause fades I do start to wonder what we sat through all of this for. I left feeling a bit like Madeleine L’Engle’s Charles Wallace on Camazotz: presented with a lovely-looking turkey dinner that ended up tasting of sand.

“Speak the speech, I pray you…

…as if it wasn’t a speech at all. Mmmkay?”

(Alternate Versions of Hamlet #48)

I just saw two local productions of Shakespeare plays– both shows I’d not seen in a while. While there were many excellent things about each, one thing jumped out at me in both cases: the action would be moving along, and then one of the characters would almost visibly gear themselves up to tackle a longer piece of verse and the energy onstage would change. This wasn’t simply the case in one instance or with one character, but a tangible occurrence, a breath-holding of sorts, at occasional intervals. Each show continued on from that point quite smoothly, and I’ve no idea if anyone else noticed, or if this was only in my imagination or experience. The actors were all doing strong work, I hasten to emphasize; just a frisson of tension rippled here and there.

Hmm. This made me think about some of the ways in which actors find Shakespeare in particular daunting– since I’ve been teaching Renaissance drama for a number of years, my reactions to the texts are slightly different from those of my castmates or fellow audience members, I find. So just what’s so scary about his works, and how might we dismantle some of that fear?

(A huge topic, and one I’ll no doubt muse aloud upon over and over again. But here’s an initial attempt to play in this sandbox.)

One of the great challenges actors can have when working on Shakespeare’s texts, I find, is the cultural weightiness that comes with so many of the speeches used in auditions or prominent in each of the plays: rather than Hamlet’s “Words, words, words,” they’re known as “The ‘To Be or Not To Be’ Speech,” “The ‘Unsex Me Here’ Speech,” “The Saint Crispin’s Day Speech” etcetera. No longer new, these pivotal points can become monoliths, mountains, feats of endurance rather than moments of communication, the definitive article preceding them sending a clear message that There Is Only One Way To Do This Right And Woe Betide If You Mess It Up.

Pity the poor actor in this circumstance– what on earth do you do when faced with such a mass of expectation in front of you?

Season 1 of the brilliant Slings and Arrows presents the problem, and a possible solution, halfway through this clip:

Geoffrey makes several telling points here, not the least of which is the fact that actors are dependent on other people to do what they do. But his response to Jack’s frightened outburst is particularly useful: “It is not that big of a play.” What if we address the frozen-terror-of-canonicity problem by dissolving it?

To my mind, “dissolving” in this context means throwing expectations to the winds, flipping the bird to Cultural Import, and focusing entirely on what my character needs to say at any given moment: what is happening now? What do I want/need/desire? How best can I get it? What words and images will help me do so? (Note that this means I need to know specifically what the words and images in the script mean– a topic for a later post.) If some of those words and images are well-known, that’s nice, but irrelevant– all that exists is this moment, this need, this scene partner. Everyone else is just along for the ride.

This applies to the classroom as well, I think—so often students can feel bombarded by the cachet of famous speeches, having been told repeatedly how wonderful this stuff is yet unable to see just why that should be so. But once we unpack the immediacy of the moment, the human passions that drive these phrases, then their attention is riveted. (Watching the expressions on students’ faces change as we go through “Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts…” as they slowly realize for the first time just what’s happening at this point is one of the most delightful experiences ever.) Then we realize all over again that nothing but these particular words, in this particular order, can express what’s happening. Yes, they’re famous, yes, they fit into larger patterns of image and metaphor and theme—but the language itself becomes alive. The characters need it to be.

To coin each phrase afresh, rather than falling into recitation, is dangerous– each time is different, the words and images might not work every time, and we must reshape the world every night. But as Geoffrey says, “there’s nothing more boring than perfection.” That’s why I work in and go to the theatre– for that risk, that aliveness, that transformation.