Shakespeare, Surprise, & Other Drugs

And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet
— Hermia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1

Walking into the Armory Theatre last night, home of Portland Center Stage, everything except for the play was unknown. I had not yet seen an Anonymous Theatre Company production, which in earlier years was by special invite. A regular fixture in the Portland theatre calendar, their one-night-a-year productions advertise only the director(s) and the play title, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The cast isn’t known to us, or even to one another. Last night, the night of the show, was the first they saw the stage, said these words in public, formed these relationships within the world of the play. The actors were come in amongst us, having taken their seats in the audience to wait out their cue—one even so long as act five. In a play about unexpected transformations, the added level of secrecy and coordinated reveals left me wondering to what extent I rely on the affect of surprise to buoy me through a theatrical experience.

Titania (Joellen Sweeney) falls in love with an ass, Bottom (Jessica Tidd).

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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.

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