¶ One of the things I am finding very powerful in this weekend’s set of performances by OPS Fest is the fluidity of the gendered pronoun. By this I mean, the capability we have to adjust to a new pronoun when we are motivated. In my last post, I discussed briefly the basic theory of gender in the early modern period: we are all one gender. Women were simply under-baked men. We didn’t stay in the oven long enough, so we were moist, soft, and hadn’t developed the extra member. This is to say that hetero- and homo-sexuality weren’t concepts people used to label themselves. Thus, when someone asks me whether or not I think William Shakespeare was gay (an idea popularized by an anti-theatreical reading of the sonnets), I’m not sure where to begin. Beside the fact that I don’t know what that would have to do with plays, “gay” as we understand it was not a way in which identity was understood. This is of course not to say that there weren’t same-sex and a variety of other kinds of relationships had by Elizabethans.
¶ A decade into the millennia we are struggling with gender and gender-neutral pronouns in our families, in our workplaces, and in our media. Being sensitive to a variety of pronouns has fundamentally changed my teaching, especially the ways in which I lead class discussion, in just the last three years. (You, too? Check out this handy pronoun handout!) Considering the struggle it is to get colleagues to speak of and to others as they would wish, I find it striking and illuminating that OPS Fest so easily and so often switches a character’s gender. The pronouns are understood as a thing easy to shift, and, what’s more, in performance they hold one another accountable to that notion. While some actors hiccuped Claudio/Claudia well past intermission, in this weekend’s “Much Adoe About Nothing,” they never gave up on the attempt. In this way, the spirit of the original practice (that the parts were designed knowing they would be played by someone identifying as another gender) collides and helps us grapple with a present-day concerns.
¶ The Prince visits Leonato with his evil sister John. Beatrice and Benedicke feud. Claudio plans to marry Hero. Folks gull Beatrice and Benedicke into thinking the other loves him/her. John makes Hero appear unfaithful. Claudio spurns her at the alter. Hero fakes her death. John’s plot is revealed. Everybody marries. [From the playbill.]
¶ Cues in this show capitalized on carrying a running-gag used in two previous shows , as well as developing a new running-gag within the frame of this performance. The first was started in “Romeo and Juliet,” heard again in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” yesterday:
PROMPTER (Kerry Leek): What’s your deal?
DON JOHN (Shandi Muff): I have daddy issues. He’s the legitimate child. I’m illegitimate. And thats informed my whole being.
PROMPTER: Oh! There’s a siren! Don John, what would the cops be coming after you for?
DON JOHN: Embezzlement. Trespassing…
¶ As this was an afternoon show in the middle of a weekend, the ambient volume was up. A number of basketball games were on-going stage right, there were a great deal of fly-overs, and the off-leash visitors were frequent. One even attempted to take a leak on Rachel Saville’s harp! Prompter for today was Kerry Leek, who had a variety of games up her sleeve. The one that perhaps best illuminated a character by show (versus tell) was her fly-over interruption to Keith Cable as Dogberry:
PROMPTER: Dogberry, if you ran the TSA, what would that look like?
DOGBERRY: (to tied-up Borachio and Conrade) What is you destination? Jail? Good. (Gestures as if to guide them through a metal-detector.) Now Verges, typically if they had anything to declare they would do so before proceeding. That they proceeded without declaring proves they are innocent.
Dogberry can be a difficult character to understand, literally and figuratively, for first-time audiences. The trick is to catch the homonyms to which he means to refer. Dogberry is Shakespeare having a side-game of charades with the audience. (i.e., One word. Sounds like…). A different sort of interruption arose during the performance in two cases that drew attention to the vast cultural divide between the late 1500s and early 2000s: the meta-comment.
BENEDICKE: Then I am—dammit Shakespeare—a Jew!
Later we got a similar insertion that connected our own stereotypes about songs and sonnets to the of the period.
BENEDICKE: Marry, I
cannot show it in rhyme; I have tried: I can find
out no rhyme to “lady” but “baby,” an innocent
rhyme; for “scorn,” “horn,” a hard rhyme; for,
“school,” “fool,” a very Bieber rhyme
¶ The former is a casual act of racism unfortunately fashionable in Elizabethan England. The Jewish community was formally expelled in 1290 by Edward I, and were not readmitted until 1656. They would have been more foreign to Shakespeare than Moors from the North African Levant, who had a marked presence in England, such as John Blanke, a member of the army. The later underscores transhistorical anxieties about expressing the fullness of one’s emotions for a beloved. I’ve always liked Philip Sidney’s formulation of this same anxiety in Astrophil and Stella:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
Such moments connect the audience to the action in the moment, as well as draw attention to the very different mental furniture Elizabethans walked around the world with as compared to our own.
¶ The favorite moment for most people in this play are the two overhearing scenes. The friends of both Benedicke and Beatrice set them up to overhear information that the one is in love with the other. The stage directions call for some kind of shrubbery behind which to hide, and in the Globe, this would have been easily done with the architectural pillars. What about when the companies were on tour and playing outside? As Beth Yocam and Brian Burger showed us, when in doubt, use your audience.
¶ Both actors tried to disappear behind and within the 100+ audience, using us as their shrubbery to keep from being seen. (These, like all attempts at disguise in this play except for the last, fail.) Burger as Benedicke started behind lawn chairs, and then conscripted a colorful parasol. Wide-brimmed floppy hats are in with the hipsters and the sun-conscious, and so he started collecting. Soon he had a Seuss-like tower of ball caps, wide brims, and other haberdashery. This gave Claudia (Lauren Saville) the perfect opportunity to barely brush him walking by, sending the whole thing toppling. While this invited the audience into the world of the play, it also put us on Benedicke’s side as he brought the action into our sphere of the wood.
¶ Likewise, Beth as Beatrice also started by hiding amongst the lawn chairs. If you were a returner audience member, it served as a nice twist on the habits of the actors who sit among the audience to watch when they have a long span of time before their next entrance. Trapped by the roving conspirators, Beatrice attempted to hide under a lawn blanket and then crawl away while underneath it. (This nicely looked ahead to a similar scene actually written into “The Tempest” when Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano first meet.) Hero (Sarah Jane Fridlich) put a foot on Beatrice’s back while mid-speech, causing her cousin to freeze uncomfortably if they wanted to preserve the fiction that one did not overhear the other. More than funny on its own, the sequence was ramped-up the second Hero turned away. The blanket belonged to Rome, the young son of two of the actors in the troupe, who immediately pulled it away, revealing Beatrice. An adorable tug-of-war ensued. Both of these variations on the overhearing/aside scenes worked together to highlight the degree to which we are willing to lie to ourselves—surely they can’t see me?—in order to feel loved.
¶ Ready for more? Up next today, Sunday, 23 July, at Irving Park (NE Fremont):
7:00PM “The Tempest”
Up next week Friday, 28 July, at Irving Park (NE Fremont):
¶ Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes! You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.
- The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
- Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
- Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.