Monday, August 20, 2018

Shakespeare (Not) On Stage

Roderick Cardwell as Richard Burbage
in "The Great Globe Itself" (2015)
Photo by Ryan Labay
Several years ago I wrote a play about the Globe Theatre, one which described three different buildings which have used that name, from three different eras in two different cities, each which was built to feature the works of William Shakespeare. My play was titled The Great Globe Itself, and toured northeast Ohio, in libraries and schools and theaters.

Shakespeare does not appear.

Over twenty years ago, my wife and I saw The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, a fiction inspired by the once long-forgotten-to-history accusation of “lechery” against Susanna (Shakespeare) Hall, eldest daughter of Stratford merchant and landowner William Shakespeare. The case was found in favor of the defendant, and the play begins as a bodice-ripper which soon evolves into the Puritanic courtroom drama not unlike The Crucible in its torturous circumlocutions.

Shakespeare does not appear.

This summer I read Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, a fanciful imagining of the hands the collected, collated, edited and published the First Folio. inarguably the most significant publication in English literature. (see my blog post on The Book of William)

Burbage dies (almost three years after Shakespeare of Stratford) and it suddenly occurs to their surviving contemporaries that so much of what gave the work its power was locked inside the heads of those who spoke his lines. If not written down, they would be lost to history. The scramble to create a proper volume of the complete works -- in fact, determining what a complete works should consist of -- is as delightful to read as I am sure it is astonishing to witness.

Shakespeare, who as aforementioned was already dead, does not appear.

Finally, my brother sent me a play script from England for my birthday; I Am Shakespeare. Written by Mark Rylance, Oscar and Tony Award-winning actor and former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Rylance is also a notable Shakespeare-denier, an Anti-Stratfordian, one who does not believe the “Man From Stratford” (as they like to call him) wrote the works attributed to him.

And yet, Shakespeare does appear in I Am Shakespeare.

At least, a version of him does. Rylance’s play falls into that category of “debate” plays that Shaw was so fond of creating (see my blog post, Shakespeare On Stage) though is Shaw’s case the argument was on the works’ merit, not its authorship. Shaw was openly scornful of those who proposed or defended such theories.

In Rylance’s play, William Shakespeare, as a character, arrives in the present day at the garage of Frank Charlton, a man obsessed with the “Authorship Question” and who hosts an online chat program that would appear to have a small, devoted following. The program has also ruined his marriage.

(Rylance uses Charlton as his stand-in, and wrote the role for himself to perform. He acknowledges, it would seem, that many who share his unorthodox views are not successful and lauded actors and directors of stage and screen, but more likely to be tin-foil hat wearing losers.)

Shakespeare, the character, has arrived from the past or elsewhere to debate the legitimacy of his achievement. He is soon followed by Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Mary Sidney, all to make the same claim. Attention is also given to Marlowe, who is obviously too cool to make an appearance.

It’s all a fun exercise, and very witty, though much of the humor stems from a wide knowledge of and deep appreciation for the works of Shakespeare. You already have to be in on the joke.

When writing The Great Globe Itself I had several agendas. The play was meant to illuminate the significance of the Globe Theatre (three Globes, as I said) as a unique acting space, one specifically suited to (most of) the works of Shakespeare.

I also wanted to tell the story of the theater Shakespeare’s made legendary in such a way that anyone without any knowledge of his life or work, could appreciate and enjoy it.

Ultimately, and here’s the kicker, I wanted to see if I could get away with writing a play about Shakespeare that also suggests the "Man From Stratford" didn’t write his own works -- but that no one would notice.

You didn't notice, did you? It was probably the impenetrable accents. My mistake.

Read "The Great Globe Itself" at New Play Exchange.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Single White Fringe Geek (blog)

American Theatre magazine produces a podcast I have been enjoying called Three On the Aisle, for which critics from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (Peter Marks, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Terry Teachout, respectively) weigh in on the national theater scene.

In this most recent episode, they began by discussing staff layoffs at the New York Daily News, and listeners were treated to the unusual sound of Marks losing his shit, loudly and profanely lamenting the fate of American theater criticism.

This is not a subject I am unfamiliar with. In this blog I have also asked what will happen when theater criticism is no longer a profession unto itself, but is a minor responsibility relegated to journalists who have numerous, diverse beats, freelance community writers, and blogging theater fans.

At the turn of this century, John Vacha wrote Showtime in Cleveland, the history of Cleveland theater up to the year 2000. For this book he leaned heavily on newspapers and the work of theater critics, not only to discover what details could be gleaned about specific productions and performances, but also the behind-the-scenes history of the business of theater in one large American city.

Without a written record, our work may be lost to future generations. And in the present, audiences and potential audiences suffer from a lack of sources of good theater criticism. And yes, we as artists miss out on having a variety of critical eyes assessing us, holding a mirror to our work.

Fifteen years ago today, we concluded our run of I Hate This (a play without the baby) at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. At this festival I attracted audiences, met new colleagues, and received plenty of praise and encouragement on the local online message boards.

I also received my first actual pan for this play. Matthew Everett had only just started the blog Single White Fringe Geek, a record of MN Fringe reviews he keeps to this day. On my way out the metaphoric door, I read his review and it was not exactly glowing.

Red Eye Theatre, Minneapolis, MN (2003)
Everett felt that, in spite of the play's unique male perspective on the subject of stillbirth, it suffered from not including the grieving mother’s voice.

He said that the narrator (me) was the only fully-developed character, and that of those other characters represented, the kind ones were casually dismissed while much more attention was focused on those who were unkind, insensitive, or -- to use my own word from the show -- evil.

“There was,” Everett wrote, “a lot of anger in this play. It bordered on being unsympathetic.”

This was a lot to swallow. When you stick your neck out to create something so intimate, you know you are taking a risk. And yet, you can’t imagine someone actually criticizing you.

I hadn’t read his review these fifteen years, though I never forgot the gist of it. Reading it again, however, was eye-opening.

Because now I understand it was the single most important review I think I have ever received.

Remember, this is was at the beginning. He attended the eighth public performance of a show I went on to produce regularly for almost five years, and have returned to several times since. And it was with comments like his in mind that I revised the script, and more importantly, modulated my performance.

I didn’t change a lot of the script, a few words, light editing, nudging the piece in a certain direction. What would have happened at the New York Fringe Festival the following year without Everett’s observation? If I had received a notice like his in the New York Times, instead the positive review I did receive, due perhaps to the changes I made at his suggestion? That might have been devastating to me.

I do not believe I am overstating this when I suggest that Matthew Everett's highly-critical review saved I Hate This.

We need criticism; thoughtful, engaged, intelligent, professional criticism.