Tilting at Windmills: Shakespeare Project of Chicago’s “Cardenio”

This past Saturday I hopped an early train to Chicago to catch the 10:00AM performance of Cardenio. The re-envisioning of the Shakespeare-and-Fletcher play, written by Charles Mee and Stephen Greenblatt, was not at all what I had expected. Performed as a staged reading by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, the production was done in modern dress and modern prose. While I’ve read Fatal ContractThe Second Maiden’s Tragedy, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote—all source material for what was the play that is now, for all intents and purposes, lost—the only relationship they seemed to share with what I saw was the broad plot structure. (The RSC usefully spells out how it came to be lost here.) Two best friends are in love with the same girl. One marries her, but for the wrong reasons. Hijinks caused by meddling parents at the Umbria wedding reception ensue, producing realizations in both men about in whom their true loves lie. Through comedic machinations and deceit, the more suitable couples are correctly aligned.

I don’t mind judicious cutting of Shakespeare to get a play to fit within two hours. I don’t mind collaboratively written plays or plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. (In fact, I think the evidence is much stronger for Fletcher than for Shakespeare in this case.) I don’t mind radical adaptations of Shakespeare to get these plays to say something new. I do mind art that bathes itself in cultural appropriation and white genius as if that is more than enough to merit its existence. And I wanted so much to like Cardenio. (I did like the performances). However, I struggled with the Italian stereotypes—of food, music, accent, sexual promiscuity, and peasant identity—that the plays leans on to do its world-building. Simonetta (Barbara Zahora) and Melchiore (Matt Kahler) are servants who provide all the traditional (and fetishized) food and drink for the feast, are made sex objects of by the New Yorkers, and then put on pedestals for their transformative folk wisdom. Even Shakespeare would have given these “low” characters more comedic work to do than this. While their musical interludes (no doubt carefully curated by John Nygro, George Zamora, and Gary Alexander) were beautiful, they were often placed as a means to soothe the confused modern Americans with the aesthetics of the Old World.

There were particularly strong performances, as I said. Will (Chris Landis), the best man at this wedding, had a wiry, squirrelly disposition that suited an earnest friend who happens to teach high school Latin. (Only when academic write narrative do the characters have jobs like high school Latin teacher here or college English major there, as in Jefferey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.)  It is hard to convey sincerity and the first blushes of realizing you are in love when there is a giant black binder of text between you and your beloved. With a low center of gravity and a straight posture, Landis extended the range of motion of his prompter hand to effectively suggest bodily engagement with his love object, the newly married Camila (Erin Neal). Camila isn’t a character you root for: she’s the kind of woman who wants to unlock something in the man she’s with, and where all relationships are fixer-uppers. Yet, Neal makes Camila sympathetic in giving her a range of emotions that effect the range of feelings she is experiencing in her decision-making process without aiming for extremes. Will and Camila end up in a sticky place: theirs is a love that is predestined, contrived at first sight, or at least biologically pre-determine. It’s a weird, antiquated notion to rehearse considering everything else in the play is brought up to date. Living in a time when Dan Savage’s condemnation of the “myth of The One” has more traction than Romeo & Juliet, I’m not sure why the co-authors decided to cling to this while giving up all the rest.

I guess what made me squirm the most was the meta-theatre for theatre’s sake. It was the same issue I had with the resolution to Kingdom City recently. The inciting incident that causes the lovers’ topsy-turvy is the unexpected arrival of the groom’s parents. With them they bring a lost Shakespeare play as a gift, and want to stage it that evening using all the guests as actors. They all conveniently happened to do theatre as children and in college. All of them. Theatre is the skill they share. Theatre is the reason things get turned upside down. Theatre is the mechanism by which Camila and Will, asked to kiss each other as the leads, realize they are biological preferable over their current partners. Theatre is the mechanism by which all is resolved without turning into a revenge tragedy. For me, at least, the mode can’t be the reason d’être for the art. A play can’t exist solely as a justification for plays to exist. Plays do something meaningful when they are a vessel for something other than art. And particularly because this play relies on marketing itself as a lost play of Shakespeare’s (and then has a lost play of Shakespeare’s put its own action into motion), as a playgoer I felt like I ended up in a sticky place, too, as if I had only attended an event to reinforce the elitism associated with that particular event. I felt dizzy, even, as if I had been tilting at windmills.

  • The Shakespeare Project of Chicago’s production of Cardenio runs 15–19 April 2016 at several Chicagoland venues. Please see their website for details.
  • Note that while admission is free, seating is limited and some venues require pre-registration.
  • The full script is available for free online at the Cardenio Project, here.

March Blogroll: Illinois Theatres Edition

Dear readers,

Now that I am starting to plan a move to the Pacific Northwest (I’ve been hired!), I’ve been thinking about all the great theatre I’ve seen in Illinois in the last decade and how much I will miss its rigor and variety. From the storefronts, serious playhouses, and Broadway options of the city to the excellent community, university, and regional theatre of the plains, I’ve seen great experiments, start-ups, world premieres, and classics. I’ve also been able to see a great deal of Shakespeare’s canon, which has informed my own writing and research immensely. As the new season announcements begin to roll out this month, I offer here a list of venues, troupes, and playwrights I’ve come to love and recommend to anyone who might themselves be new and moving to the Midwest.

  • Sean Graney: As house playwright for The Hypocrites, he has been a long-time favorite of mine. I reviewed his Court Theatre production of The Comedy of Errors for Shakespeare Bulletin, as well as his award-winning All Our Tragic here on Bite Thumbnails.
  • Emily Schwartz: Emily’s taste and playfulness offers a new kind of macabre, reminiscent of something steam punk, something Beetlejuice, and something Tim Burton. The backbone of the Strange Tree Group (see more below), favorite productions of hers have been Funeral Wedding: The Alvin PlayThe Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins…Who Kill HimShakespeare’s King Phycus in association with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen. The last was produced in association with Steppenwolf Garage Rep and later ran as part of the New York Fringe Festival.
  • Tracy LettsAs a multiple Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Letts is arguably one of the most important writers and actors working in Chicago today. He is part of the prestigious Steppenwolf ensemble, and as an undergraduate I was able to see the premiere runs of his groundbreaking August: Osage County and Superior Donuts (starring John Michael Hill and Michael McKean). Despite its difficult content, his film Killer Joe (starring Matthew McConaughey), the play of which was done at UIUC around when I first arrived as a graduate student, is just as brilliant as August.
Two of the ladies at the heart of Strange Tree’s Doctor Crippen, Kate Nawrocki and Delia Baseman.
  • The Strange Tree GroupAs mentioned, Strange Tree is the product of several Indiana theatre students who came to the big city with a very unique perspective. While I list my favorite productions above, you can see my review of The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, their most successful staging, as well as my personal favorite, Shakespeare’s King Phycus, on the blog.
  • The Q BrothersThe ad-rap-tations have been one of my favorite discoveries while living in Illinois. These two brothers have found a way to transfer the sense of speed, exigency, and rhythm of Shakespeare’s texts to a modern audience, using instead the conventions of rap rather than iambic pentameter. It’s a brilliant multi-modal approach, balancing a playfulness with a serious tenor perhaps best conveyed today for audiences. I’ve seen their Funk It Up About Nothin’ in its several iterations, last summer got a glimpse of their Two Gents, and perhaps will get a chance to check out their Othello: The Remix this summer, which premiered first at the Globe theatre in London.
  • Redmoon: We were all immensely distraught when Redmoon had to shutter its doors last year. Their productions rethought how space and scale alters theatrical experience, making them part of the grand opening of Millennium Park and taking them to the White House. I encountered them during their outdoor summer spectacle, as well in their amazing theatre collaborations Cyrano and Tempest. (The cover image of this post comes from one of their summer spectacles.)
The Q Brothers are bringing back their Othello: The Remix this spring at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
  • Steppenwolf Theatre CompanyThese were the plays I saved up all my waitressing tips for. These were the plays that I had to walk home rather than hop the Halsted bus because I needed space to cry for several city blocks. The last thing I saw, Good People, was no exception.
  • Court Theatre at the University of Chicago: While I have reviewed two production at the Court—The Comedy of Errors and Porgy and Bess—it was several years prior that two other productions fundamentally changed how I experienced theatre. A January 2008 Titus Andronicus, silently framed as a elite club initiation rite, rattled my sense of where reality and play diverge. In November of 2008 there was Radio Macbeth, which melted my heart. I apologize for the hyperbole, but it remains nevertheless true.
  • Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre: Some of the first theatre I paid for as an undergraduate was at Victory Gardens. It was a few blocks from campus, and I saw my first Sarah Ruhl play, Eurydice, there. It also has the honor of abutting the alley where John Dillinger was shot (and the site where the Jonny Depp film was also shot).
Titus (Timothy E Kane) attempts to console Lavinia (Elizabeth Ledo) in the Court production of Titus Andronicus–a production that fundamentally changed how I thought about this early Shakespeare play.
Training Spaces
  • Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois: Krannert has been my home base for regular theatre for more than six years now. I have subscribed to the drama season since I first got to UIUC as a graduate student. It has exposed me to a great many texts I would not have otherwise sought out, dynamic ways to think about dramaturgy and stage design, and of course informed my teaching. I have reviewed a great deal of the MFA productions on the blog, but some personal favorites include Killer Joe, The African Company Presents Richard IIIClybourne Park, The Tempest, The Normal HeartThe Table‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Brooklyn Babylon.
  • Merle Reskin Theatre at DePaul University: Having once been a music student, I made many friends in the Chicago theatre community quickly. Some of those initial friendships and exposure happened at the Merle Reskin. Later, when I worked as a residential advisor, the Reskin routinely gave me free tickets to share with my residents for bonding events.
  • Athenaeum TheatreWhile the Reskin was my official university base, I think I saw more productions at the Athenaeum than anywhere else in Chicago as an undergraduate. The space isn’t one theatre, but many small blackboxes spread across multiple floors. The productions were often original, experimental, and inexpensive. I saw my first Will Eno play, Flu Season, there and now almost always teach it in my Studies in Drama course.
The Athenaeum performance space on Chicago’s north side.
  • Back Room Shakespeare Project: The project is doing something that I think, like the Q Brothers, recovers the kind of experience Elizabethans had when they attended playhouses in the sixteenth century. No director, one rehearsal, and in a bar (not unlike the inn-yard performances of early modern London), these are thoughtful and risky productions as I explain in my review of their Julius Caesar for Shakespeare Bulletin.
  • The Improvised Shakespeare Company at IO: These guys are everywhere, going on tour across the state, in Chicago and in New York using Shakespeare’s verse as a improv comedy tool. It is the thing I recommend most often to people visiting the city for only a few days; you get a taste of Chicago’s rich improv and Shakespeare traditions all in one bite.
  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company at the University of Illinois: As a graduate student studying early modern theatre, I have always felt lucky to have a entirely student-run troupe doing Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Producing between two and four productions each semester, the company gave me the idea for this blog, and was one of the first things I reviewed, an As You Like ItSome other favorites include a MUSE-inspired HamletThe Country WifeMacbeth, and last summer’s rather brilliant Othello.
  • The Shakespeare Project of Chicago: This company does professional Shakespeare by the book. By that I mean no costumes and a bare stage along with prompters. In doing so, this company provides smart text-oriented interpretations, while finding clever ways to turn those prompters into props and costumes themselves. They perform across the Chicagoland area, but I have always seen them at their 10:00AM Newberry Library performances. I’ve reviewed them professionally (here) and am planning on attending their performance of Cardenio in a few weeks.
  • Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier: I have a vexed relationship with this theatre. It produces high-quality Shakespeare in a Blackfriars-esque performance space. Their casting problematically tends toward the coasts rather than drawing on local talent. And yet one of my favorite memories is of Sean Graney’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II back in 2008. (Apparently that was an important year for my relationship with Bill.) I am excited to be reviewing a couple productions as part of the City Desk initiative later this summer. Can’t wait? Two notable productions of late include the rarely-staged Pericles and a fabulous import of Hamlet.
  • Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Illinois State University: The festival has been a regular thing for several years now, where I have attended at least one production with two friends of mine, a theatre PhD and a librarian, every summer. Festival Shakespeare is a unique kind of theatrical experience, and while I will be sad to part with Bloomington, I look forward to adopting another festival in Ashland, Oregon.

I moved to Chicago from a small cow town in Hawai’i to study jazz. I had played in ensembles and as a pit musician starting in middle school. My mother, a flautist, would often let me hide inside the pit as a little kid so I could hang out and watch dress rehearsals for community theatre. So I came to the city to study music, but couldn’t seem to stay out of any kind of theatre, musical or otherwise. I changed majors, pursued other passions and eventually a doctorate. Illinois’ theatres have been with me all the while. They have been the back-bone of my performance education, and not the least of the things I am concerned to leave behind as I head west for a new adventure. I feel so grateful for all these theatres and artists working in the Midwest.

With many thanks,

P.S. It may go without saying, but any recommendations you have for theatre and Shakespeare (professional or otherwise) in the Portland area are most welcome!