The first rule of Shakespeare Club

I feel very lucky to be living in a moment when regional and community theatres, in part spurred by the recent 400th anniversary, are feeling compelled and excited to perform the less famous plays from William Shakespeare’s oeuvre. I know it won’t last long. If I could have my dream, it would be that these companies would turn to doing other plays from this period in rep with those attributed to Shakespeare. Doing the less-popular works is interesting to me in two ways especially. First, as a Shakespearean, I get a refresher on a text I likely teach very rarely if at all, and get a chance to think about it in a performance context as compared to other plays I can mumble along to in my sleep. Second, negotiations of artistic authority—such as the questions of who has done the research, what is the role of the reviewer—rear their ugly head and remind us of the ways in which canonical literature can so be used to disenfranchise the audiences for whom it was intended.

A view of the Lone Fir Cemetery at dusk.

Last night’s performance of “Troilus and Cressida,” the twilight tragedy being performed in Portland Actors Ensemble‘s 48th season this July, provides an interesting case to explore the tension of authority brought to bear when staging the periphery of Shakespeare’s canon.

Some positioning first. I am a Shakespearean scholar by training, although my actual research interests are in playing companies and practices from the generation before this particular playwright entered the marketplace. I bring to contemporary performances a particular set of memories of shows I have seen, information about historical context, and training in certain reading norms. I am also the scholar-in-residence with another Shakespeare-oriented troupe in town. This troupe uses very different performance strategies and has different aesthetic priorities than PAE; I do not influence those choices, only watch, respond, and support as needed. In fact, one of their company members was a major role in this production. This is all to say, any Shakespeare production I see is a form of learning and research for me, and so I know full well I am not the playgoer these companies intend. In addition, my partner is a Classicist and poet (e.g., his poem, “Hector“), so when it comes to the Roman plays, our household simply knows too much.

Or at least that is what I am encouraged to believe. A popular trend in reviewing, in pre-performance comments, and even in talk-backs I have been invited to participate in as an expert, there is something distrustful or artistically destructive about s/he that would know too much. In this post, I’m going to discuss, from an admittedly autobiographical point-of-view, three rules of Shakespeare club:

  1. Don’t talk about Shakespeare club; or, baiting reviewers.
  2. Don’t talk about Shakespeare club; or, colonizing expertise.
  3. Don’t talk about Shakespeare club; or, reactive dramaturgy.

Don’t talk about Shakespeare club; or, baiting reviewers

While I was never a working actor, I have worked as a musician and been in the arts community long enough to know that you should never mention reviews while the performance is on-going. Aside from looking petty, there are two very practical reasons for this: (1) you train your audience to anticipate the element you are rejecting, suggesting they ignore the rest of the work you are doing, and (2) the defensive posture turns theatre into a competition, usually something audiences are trying to remove themselves from.

For example, Paul Susi, playing Achilles, was charged with doing the pre-show introduction and donation spiel. He started by mentioning a recent review in The Oregonian, which I and, I assume, most of the audience had not read, and rejected an interpretation of a challenging scene as “ambiguous.” Several things immediately happened. (1) I wondered, is “ambiguous” a bad word? (2) As a Millennial, I and everyone around me immediately Googled the article, and so stopped listening to the donation part of the pitch. [I bet you clicked on the link about, too. That’s okay! I cued you to do so by hyperlinking.] (3) The review was perfectly fine. Not glowing but not panning. What were they so upset about? This made me suspicious of the production that had yet to start. If this person had misread this review, how well had they read the play? What was I here to see again?

From left: Cressida (Alexandria Casteele), Pandarus (Jim Butterfield), and Troilus (Jacob Camp).

Don’t talk about Shakespeare club; or, colonizing expertise

As a scholar who listens to actors and tries to get other scholars to listen to practitioners, I’ve had to make an art out of negotiating how these different experts vie for authority over one another. I don’t think it too radical to say that many areas of Shakespeare Studies and Shakespeare in Performance are stagnant precisely because the cowman and the farmer have yet to be friends.  For example, the first sentence in the note from the director in the program reads: “I’ve been reading a lot of criticism.” In addition, The Oregonian review calls the playtext (not the performance) “bargain basement Bard” then later states the director, “Walsh takes full advantage of his arcane material, making trims and tweaks that might upset only Shakespeare superfans.”

No side is without guilt here: the director and the reviewer were making claims on who knows the most while devaluing that knowledge. Who are they trying to impress? To speak for the Shakespearean Whipping-Boys—the scholars routinely summoned into these articles to serve as straw (wo)men but unable to defend themselves—let me clarify two things. First, we don’t call Shakespeare “the Bard,” as it suggests that there weren’t or aren’t other writers of that period and today, men and women, of equal aesthetic importance and cultural complexity. “Genius” claims like this are dangerous, particularly to female and minority voices. Second, Shakespeareans like it when you fuck with Shakespeare. Cut, change, move bits around; this is what playwrights did in the period. By messing with Shakespeare’s texts, you are actually being the most historically accurate. There are no rules in Shakespeare club. Really. Except, perhaps, that it is no fun without other people there to watch. This leads me to my final observation.

From left: Achilles (Paul Susi), Ulysses (Brian Burger), and Patroclus (Josh Belville).

Don’t talk about Shakespeare club; or, reactive dramaturgy

If you want to offend a (fictitious, ostensible) Shakespearean, simply don’t make active choices. That is it. That is our kryptonite. From conversations with other theatre-makers, this seems to be true of any production. If you just say the words, if you don’t have an interpretation, a goal, a reading, a perspective on your character based on what they say, what they do, your playgoers are confused. We snobs, we snake-oil sales(wo)men of academe, we like to use the reason d’être, from the French meaning “reason for being,” to describe this. If I am not sure why you think I should be here for this play, then why am I not at home?

And PAE’s “Troilus and Cressida” has a number of thought-provoking reasons for me not to be at home. The venue, like both the winery and park used for their Love’s Labour’s Lost  and Coriolanus last year (which I wrote about here), was brilliant in terms of idea and its own beauty. Lone Fir Cemetery is a historical site and the performance was held at the foot of a towering monument, “Soldiers Memorial,” featuring a bronze of a boy soldier holding a drooping flag. Ringing the small lawn were modest nineteenth-century headstones. Perfect for a play about the Trojan War. But where nature gave them a stage, they built themselves another. Hanging over strings tied between trees were walls painted with graffiti, including words like “WAR.” Again, as a literature professor, show versus tell, man. If you have to tell me this play is about war, than you probably aren’t showing me what war is and why it matters.

The show-not-tell problem was a systemic one, getting in the way of good ideas. Borrowing a drum kit from the high school across the street, a rim-shot or other stroke was used to emphasize every stab and punch. This worked to make the violence cartoonish rather than serious, like a Batman television “POW!” I could understand using the high-hat to stand in for a trumpet call (the most universal of military sounds), but not when the effort was put in to pre-record both an air-raid siren and guns with a firing pop sound were used. Too literal in some instances and not literal at all in others. Both are fine, but you have to choose what kind and level of imaginative work you want your audiences to be doing.

From left: Diomedes (Murri Lazaroff-Babin), Ulysses (Brian Burger), Cressida (Alexandria Casteele), Agamemnon (Gary Powell), and Achilles (Paul Susi).

While some of the ideas of the dramaturgy of the production were inconsistent, many of the actors made effective and thoughtful choices. Alexandria Casteele as Cressida powerfully conveyed both her struggle with the necessity of attaching herself to a protective male based on the tide of the war (Troilus when Troy, Diomedes when Greece), and her struggle with her pimping uncle’s objectifying behaviors in the context of horny soldiers. Likewise, Brian Burger as Ulysses developed a character who is a trickster by nature, a smart and competent figure but not a soldier in this war setting. He is the invaluable strategist for the Greeks, but you watch him fray, slowly loosing his prim tie and waistcoat, over the course of events as he tries to leverage heroic masculinity against actual victory. Both actors, based on their choices, seem to understand that the narrative of the Iliad was not and is not romantic. Despite the duality of the title we associate with love stories, this isn’t that.

And what was the “ambiguous” scene that posed so much anxiety? I actually still am not sure. There were two possible moments. When Troilus (Jacob Camp) first comes to court Cressida, he misunderstands her invitation in and drops his pants when her back is turned. When he realizes his mistake and zips-up, the wooing conversation that follows is oddly colored by his overt display of desire. I didn’t find this moment as “ambiguous” in that it was inexact in intention, but rather in the sense that it was an interestingly complex moment when the reality of a body’s desire is at odds with social norms of courtship—made additionally complicated in the rape-culture context. The second possible moment may have been the metaphorical gang-rape of Cressida, or the “kiss in general” scene. In a prisoner exchange, Cressida is retaken by the Greeks and her former love-interest, Diomedes. As a show of political dominance over the Trojans as well as a show of military competence to one another, she is slammed between each of the warriors and made to “kiss” them, in the loosest interpretation of that phrase. It is in the text and it is important this isn’t ignored. The very first conversation in Homer is about the rape of Briseis, after all. It is informative in that both Achilles and Patroclus are forced to do so—both played as overtly homosexual. Perhaps this could be understood as ambiguous if you were looking for a love story? The fact that Aeneas was gendered female and it is implied that she is taken offstage to be raped makes clear that these three sequences were thematizing sexual violence as a crucial political tool of heroic warfare.

From left: Diomedes (Murri Lazaroff-Babin), Aeneas (Landy Hite), and Ajax (Samson Syharath).

I did not find these decision to foreground sexual violence “ambiguous,” but I did find them buried and distracted from by all of the other reactive and unconnected choices being made (or not made). Perhaps this thematic concern was even a coincidence? At the end of the show, Susi returned and mentioned that if any veterans had been triggered, there were resources available. If I understand the tool correctly, trigger warnings are intended before the possible trigger so preventative behaviors can happen. While there was an acknowledgment of trauma after the fact, it only nodded to one kind of trauma. Another trauma, which became a major part of the play, was left unsaid.

What would I like to see from this Shakespeare Club? PAE is really good at finding and (usually) using dynamic spaces—spaces that offer a significant revelation the actor’s body simply cannot provide. They make the most of their spaces, which are typically unique to the cultural landscape of Portland’s art and pioneer history. (What if, for example, rather than contemporary or generic fatigues, post-Civil War or WWI military garb was used to reflect the veterans in the ground around the performance?) They make good casting decisions for their leads. They are willing to do the hard plays, the less famous plays, the plays most in need of fresh air. Kristin Heller will be directing their “The Winter’s Tale” later this summer, with its unique challenges in Imogen and the infamous bear.  This will be the show that they tour through vineyards in the Willamette Valley, so that touring context opens up exciting opportunities. I’ll be there, knowing, from Seneca,

“there is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it in expecting evil before it arrives?”

  • Portland Actors Ensemble’s production of “Troilus and Cressida” plays in Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland, OR, 7-29 July, 2017.
  • This production is free and open to the public. Donations are encouraged. Arrive early to get a spot, as blanket and folding-chair areas are designated by ropes so that all can have the best possible view.

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