Friday, March 30, 2007

Brush up your Shakespeare

I have now seen both of Propeller's current offerings at BAM, and I am excited to be able to discuss them side by side. But the ensemble is only in town through tomorrow, so before you read on, go buy your tickets! I'll wait.

It's hard to overstate the value of a true ensemble approach to performing Shakespeare. As I said before, I saw and was enchanted by the 1998 Nicholas Hytner production of Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center. But I remember it most vividly as a collection of individual performances, ranging from great (Helen Hunt, Philip Bosco, Brian Murray, Max Wright) to good (Paul Rudd) to poor (Kyra Sedgwick). As performed by Edward Hall's excellent company, Twelfth Night has no "star" except the text, and what a deep and rich text it is. There are more themes and plotlines and characters in Twelfth Night than most directors know what to do with; in fact, the same could probably be said of any of Shakespeare's plays. In most productions (and especially film adaptations) of Shakespeare I've seen, the director decides to emphasize one particular plot or theme and shapes everything else to that end; e.g., this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream will focus all its attention on Bottom, or this will be a blatantly patriotic Henry V. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but even when it works well, there is nearly always something Shakespeare wrote -- some scene, some soliloquy, some joke -- that (as Malvolio would say) "suffers under probation," or works against the director's pet interpretation, and must therefore be excised or shortchanged to minimize damage to the overall project. Shakespeare's complexity may be a gift to academics, but it can be a stumbling block to directors and audiences.

In Propeller's production of Twelfth Night, no such "interpretation" is imposed on the play; the text seems to dictate every decision. Because men play all the parts, the romance plots don't automatically take center stage, as they did in the Nick Hytner production (I can still feel the palpable sexual tension generated by a frequently shirtless Paul Rudd and a remarkably androgynous Helen Hunt... Yowza). In this production I experienced the Viola/Orsino/Olivia triangle on a more cerebral level, since I had to keep reminding myself who believed what about whom at any given time (e.g., Here Olivia, who is actually a woman, is talking to a woman that she thinks is a man). Meanwhile, the Malvolio/Toby Belch/Andrew Aguecheek/Maria subplot seems uncomfortably prominent, not because the company favors it, but because it is uncomfortably prominent. Watching this production, you realize just how much of the play is devoted to the victimization of Malvolio, and how disproportionate his punishment is relative to his crime.

Seeing Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew in repertory this way made me aware of a relationship I'd never before noticed, a relationship that I am now (almost) convinced is the key to understanding both plays. In each case, we are presented with a character who, based on what we see and what we are told, deserves to have the piss taken out of him or her (as Shakespeare might have put it). But the other characters' plot to "tame" the troublemaker takes on a life of its own, with much darker and crueler consequences than anyone seems to have intended. In fact, the only one in Twelfth Night who doesn't regret the outcome of the Malvolio prank is Feste, the so-called "clown," who dodges remorse with a heartlessly casual, "...but that's all one."

As difficult as it can be to make the various elements of Twelfth Night come together as "one," an even more confounding disunity colors the text of The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare's own attitude toward the play's events is impossible to determine: if he intends it purely as broad comedy, why does Katherine so often, and so effectively, appeal to our sympathies? And if he intends to critique the misogynistic social order, why is Katherine's final speech ("I am ashamed that women are so simple..." and all the rest) so long, and so sincere?

The trap laid for Malvolio depends on his "self-love," and the sequence where he reads the love letter supposedly penned by Olivia and says, "If I could make that resemble something in me!" is often cited (somewhat ironically) by scholars as warning against overinterpretation. Propeller's production of Twelfth Night certainly takes that warning to heart; the text is never "crushed," not even a little, to make it "bow" to an external idea of what it ought to be about. Shrew is less stable in its written form, and so it requires more aggressive interpreting, and there were moments here and there when I noticed a disparity between the way I prefer to read a certain scene or exchange and the way this production played it. This Petruchio is a total yob, drunken and thoroughly abusive, and neither he nor anyone else delights much in his gift for comic wordplay (which is the reason I have such affection for this frustrating play on the page). But if that is underemphasized, the cruelty with which he (and everyone else) treats Katherine is made that much more plain, and the fact that the female characters differ only in costume from the males makes the struggle to "tame" Kate seem especially arbitrary. Throughout the play, the ensemble's decisions, even at their most surprising or unorthodox, always serve the text, and they add up to a remarkably consistent whole. Watching both shows, I had the sense that no other interpretation, no other approach, could possibly work as well as the one I was seeing onstage. Which is not to say I'm finished thinking about the puzzles in Twelfth Night and Shrew -- on the contrary, leaving BAM after each show, I had the urge to go straight to my Norton Shakespeare and reread both plays, and as I flip through the pages now, every line feels more alive than ever with possible meanings... which is only appropriate, since Shakespeare's alternate title for Twelfth Night is What You Will.

I'll spare you any more of my amateur Shakespearean scholarship, but I do want to add that both productions are extremely well acted and a joy to watch, very funny and physical and always clear. The company generates a spontaneous energy that nearly disguises the metronome-precise timing of both productions. And the incidental music in both shows, performed and produced entirely by the actors (eat your heart out, John Doyle), is richer and more sophisticated than the scores of most contemporary musicals.

Two more notes on the experience, while we're at it: I love most things about BAM's Harvey Theater, but the cafe area needs more seating, and the auditorium needs more legroom between rows (and at least one of those situations is easy to fix). And also, since I attended both of these performances with my fiance, I owe it to him to point out that he was only joking when he swore off Shakespeare some weeks back. But even if he had been serious, these productions could make a believer out of anybody, and I think they are as fine an introduction to Shakespeare as you're likely to come across. On the other hand, if, like me, you've read and reread these two texts, you may find it a bit of a challenge to strip away whatever conclusions you've reached and experience them fresh. But the rewards, I think, will be greater for your efforts. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do!

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