“Feast here awhile”: Shakespeare for a Portland Autumn

Dear readers:

According to American Theatre magazine, “Shakespeare remains the most-produced playwright in the country, with 108 productions (including various adaptations). And this year his most-produced play will be Twelfth Night with 9 productions.” In fact, Shakespeare in Love was the most produced play of the year, with 15 full-scale professional productions nation-wide. This does not take into account all of the Shakespeare-ish works making the rounds to be excited for, including the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged) and Emma Whipday’s Shakespeare’s Sister. If you are in the Portland area this fall, there are a couple of exciting productions to keep your eyes peeled for.

Pericles Wet

This December, Portland Shakespeare Project will be producing a full-scale run of my colleague, Ellen Margolis’ adaptation of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Based on the act printed in a recent issue of Proscenium and a reading I saw last year, this is likely to prove special. This re-magining refocuses on the assault of Princess Hesperides and the framing device of Gower.

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WIL Festival 4.1: “Macbeth”

 When I talk to friends and colleagues about original practice (O.P.) performances, their first response is usually a skeptical one. Part of that resistance stems from an assumption that anything trying to return to an early moment or wellspring is a museum artifact: stagnant, static, lacking flexibility and topicality. If you’ve been to an OPS Fest performance, however, you will note that there are no hose, doublets, of ruffs, nor is original pronunciation or any kind of accent used. (I should say accents are used, but typically to draw attention to comic or class distinctions.) So what is “original” about these performances? It’s in the practice.

As any musician will tell you, one practices alone and one rehearses with a group. As is mentioned in the pre-show talk every night, the many-month-ed rehearsal of contemporary theatre was not a feature of the Renaissance. One memorized in private, and then came to do the show. To use another musical simile, OPS Fest capitalizes on the performance technique of a prima vista or “sight-reading”: to perform a piece of art upon first sight. Part of being in a professional orchestra or jazz combo relies on the fact that you have played so much music that your brain can more quickly pick up the patterns and anticipate the shape of a melodic line accurately at relatively first sight. It is a matter of a great deal of practice and exposure to a lot of material quickly. In an O.P. performance, you are seeing actors capitalize on having seen chiasmus, litotes, and other rhetorical figures so many times before that they understand how to deliver them, despite not having seen this particular case in front of them before.

In both advertising and performance strategies, OPS Fest replicates period practices.

In other words, O.P. is about experimenting with how sixteenth and seventeenth century players made theatre, not what. It is about the conservation and rehabilitation of a set of tactics and strategies, rather than the preservation (and possible mummification) of the content of a specific play. Take, for example, the A-frame sidewalk signs you’ll see guiding you to the performance space (pictured above). They use the same graphic art taped to the sign that you will see on posters throughout the neighborhood in the weeks before the show, as well as on the cover of your program. While there were no sidewalks or such signs in the period, there was this exact kind of printing redundancy for advertising. When printers were requested to make a run of copies of a play to sell, they printed a number of extras of the title-pages. These “playbills” were posted around London advertising the playbooks, who lately performed the play, and where you could buy copies. So while the specific design, paper stock, and ink aren’t the same today, the practice of it most certainly is. So how did the WIL Fest staging of its second tragedy, “Macbeth,” fair under these conditions?
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