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.

A “Measure for Measure” for good listeners

It was early in the morning on a Saturday, and I was already on a city bus making my way to the Newberry Library for a staged reading of Measure for Measure, wishing the bus to skip a few stops so I could make the 10:00 am call. I had given up on trying to make the pre-show commentary. I was worried that my tardiness would be expressly noted by what would no doubt be a minuscule and rather homogenous audience of aging purists. To my surprise, not only did I make it on time, but the room was packed, lively, and I wasn’t the only one in attendance under thirty.

I should have known this might be the case: the Shakespeare Project of Chicago (SPC) has had fifteen years to garner a dedicated and variable following–deservedly so based on the merits of this production. In the post-show discussion, Nathan Hosner (Angelo) made a nice comment encapsulating the interpretation of this late Shakespeare comedy: “this is really Shakespeare sticking a fork in comedy.” The playtext does seem to suggest Shakespeare turning over comedic conventions, and pushing some of the tried-and-true tricks of the trade to their limits. One example is the not one but two bed tricks. The first is obvious: Mariana (Michelle Shupe), Angelo’s true wife, stands in to sleep with her husband although he thinks it is the would-be-nun, Isabella (Gail Rastorfer). The second is a grotesque version of the previous traditional bed trick: in order to save Isabella’s brother Claudio (Sean Cooper) from death, the Provost (Dan Rodden) has another prisoner’s head cut off and sent to Angelo as proof of Claudio’s death.

These exchanges point up issues of value: Whose life is more important than another? How do we determine individual worth, and on what scale? That these bed tricks take place off stage and are a matter of implication by the text itself aided the production by suggesting a greater sense of space without necessitating props, not even a bed. As to the staging itself, the group used a large room on the first floor of the library often used for talks and conferences; it has no permanent elements except for support columns throughout the space. Aside from the provided chairs and a basic dais for the performers, there was nothing else of material note. (One could watch the production, or turn around and watch the other actors mill around and wait for cues, an interesting exposure of back-stage life.)

The trade off in the lack of costumes, set, or props enabled the use of prompt books throughout the production, i.e. staged reading. This allowed for very close attention to textual interpretation. The actors did not sit around a table but in fact performed, taking their entrances and exits and so forth but maintaining an emphasis on the words themselves. It is rare that a playgoer today feels more like a true audience member (where listening to the poetry is the primary function) rather than a spectator (with its primacy of the visual). This directorial emphasis not only makes the SPC’s productions infinitely malleable to performances spaces, but are a really good opportunity to practice our underdeveloped and undervalued critical listening skills.

In terms of performance, Angelo and Isabella were especially strong, both developing a nice interior life for their characters fully supported by an experienced and tempered ensemble. Only Claudio was unconvincing in his sense of mortality and encounter with the gravity of death. Isabella was clearly centered as the main protagonist in this rendition, set on a crucible that emphasizes the problematic ending that has made the play so interesting to modern feminist scholars: having escaped being forced to sleep with Angelo, Isabella is cleverly manhandled by the Duke Vincentio (Stephen Spencer) into marrying him instead of returning to holy orders. Director Peter Garino explained this as a moment of acquiescence rather than force, stating that Vincentio’s proposal implies that he is humbled by Isabella’s development into a woman throughout the course of events, having passed every test he sneakily set for her.

Garino’s direction led to a nicely complex rending of an intentionally problematic conclusion (as suggested by the play’s title), but in the talk-back dramaturge Michelle Shupe contradicted this scope of the production. She bluntly stated that early moderns would not have been so keen to understand the problematic tension of Isabella being taken by the duke, that it would have seemed a natural course of events for a comedy. Such a claim seemed to undercut their thoughtfully-wrought rendition, and if we consider the influence of audience reception and seventeenth-century theatre as a consumer-driven industry, this claim is wholly inaccurate.

If the infrastructure of SPC has a fault, it is also it strength: while the company is entirely self-sustaining and stripped-down, this also necessitates a reliance on company members to do some of the extra-production research and work that may at times fall short. In this case it did not seem to affect the production in a major way. Aside from this albeit technicality of interpretation, Measure for Measure is a strong reading of a complex Shakespeare play that I highly recommend to those interested in Shakespeare’s poetic language as much as the spectacle of it.

  • The Shakespeare Project of Chicago‘s production of Measure for Measure plays twice more–October 16 at 2pm at the Wilmette Public Library and October 24 at 2pm at the Highland Park Public Library.
  • Note these productions are free and open to the public.