I’ve been pursuing Shakespeare since I was 12. I gaze in wonder as he spins his tales, even as Desdemona.
Last Saturday I obtained a ticket to the Comedy of Errors by the machinations of one of my best friends, Christine. You know the plot. 2 sets of twins, one set looking for the other, finds the right town without knowing. Misrecognitions lead one set of twins being bewildered and the other beaten, arrested, locked out. In the end, of course, they are reconciled. In the meanwhile the funnies are abundant.
Propellor, the all-male British company I saw, was electrifying!
Their director states their view well.
“We want to rediscover Shakespeare simply by doing the plays as we believe they should be done: with great clarity, speed, and full of as much imagination in the staging as possible. We don’t want to make the plays “accessible,” as this implies that they need “dumbing down” in order to be understood, which they don’t. We want to continue to take our work to as many different kinds of audiences as possible, and so to grow as artists and people. We are hungry for more opportunity to explore the richness of Shakespeare’s plays and, if we keep doing this with rigor and invention, then I believe the company, and I hope our audiences too, will continue to grow. ”
As he says: clarity, speed and imagination. They didn’t slow the pace of the quick driving puns and witticisms. They didn’t change the depth or character of Shakespeare. Instead, they chose a more modern and surprising way to project meaning and communicate with their audience.
They tore down the third wall, inviting audience participation. They used odd ball props and capitalized on stereotypes. They used music.
Did it go over well? Resoundingly so! The audience was alive, roaring with laughter and jumping into the action at all the right places.
Dromio of Syracuse was about to be beaten (again) by his master. Action stopped. The spotlight followed him to the front of the stage, while a muted violinist trailed behind him playing saccharine strains of sorrow. Dromio cataloged his ills. At every appropriate break in his recital of mistreatments, he waved his arm in a semi circle and the entire audience said “awwwww” together.
Pinch the Conjuror came out singing pop songs with half the cast as back up singers and the audience found the beat and clapped for him, literally singing along. His useless witchcraft was based loosely on televangelist behaviors and costumes.
Pinch improvised his way through his scene, thanking us for our clapping and sending the demons “back to Ohio!”
Music was a part of the production from the moment I walked into the theater. Most of the cast was milling about on stage playing south of the border style tango music. Throughout the show, there were musical cues to lead a world nurtured on the leitmotif through the plot. Every single time someone talked about the famous Gold Chain, a chime rang. (the violinist. WOW! talent…) (oh, and all men’s choirs? good good good!)
The stage was set to emphasize the sleazy nature of Ephasus. There was junk and grafitti. When Dromio and Antipholus of Ephasus were hauled off to prison for not having the chain (ding!), they were stuffed into green rolly trashcans. They popped out occasionally, only to be knocked back in and dragged away. Oh happiness!
What made this production unique among other well produced and staged productions?
Propeller slapped their audience awake and, by inviting interaction, met the crowd and communicated. We rewarded them with spontaneous applause.
Rather than sitting still and watching professionals solemnly go through the Shakespeare motions, rather than glaze over like at the cinema, rather than trying to be edgy and modern, Propeller just played. They played Shakespeare, they played along with us, they showed the audience that this was meant to be entertaining, and meant for them.
The whole theater left a little bit happier, a smidge less worried about the economy, and hoarse.
I am now sitting around contemplating several things.
1) How can we engage this passive culture of arts consumption?
2) How can I do for people in my art what Propeller did for me; ease my burden for a little while.?
3) Is this the entire purpose of art or is there more?
So thank you, Shakespeare, Christine, and Propeller!