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Photo: John Stone
While researching Scots economist Adam Smith, a Canadian academic found an edition of Shakespeare’s last play in a Scottish Catholic college in Spain!

Sometimes when scientists are doing basic research with no practical application in sight they land on the missing piece to understanding a rare disease. And when conservationists preserve some creature no one else cares about, the world may later find that the creature is essential to a whole ecosystem. Unexpected discoveries are often the best kind.

Meanwhile, in the department of Treasures Found While Seeking Something Else, there’s a delightful report at the BBC on the unsought discovery of a rare copy of Shakespeare’s last play. No one would have found it if they were looking for it.

Reevel Alderson from BBC Scotland writes, “The Two Noble Kinsmen, written by Shakespeare with John Fletcher, was found by a researcher investigating the work of the Scots economist Adam Smith. …

“In the 17th Century, the seminary in Madrid was an important source of English literature for Spanish intellectuals. The Two Noble Kinsmen was included in a volume made up of several English plays printed from 1630 to 1635.

“Dr John Stone, of the University of Barcelona, said he found it among old books in the library of the Real Colegio de Escoceses — Royal Scots College (RSC) — which is now in Salamanca.

” ‘Friendship turns to rivalry in this study of the intoxication and strangeness of love,’ is how the Royal Shakespeare Company described the play, which is based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.

“It was probably written around 1613-14 by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, one of the house playwrights in the Bard’s theatre company the King’s Men. …

“Described as a ‘tragicomedy,’ the play features best friends, who are knights captured in a battle. From the window of their prison they see a beautiful woman with whom they each fall in love. Within a moment they have turned from intimate friends to jealous rivals in a strange love story which features absurd adventures and confusions.

“Dr Stone, who has worked in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, said: ‘It is likely these plays arrived as part of some student’s personal library or at the request of the rector of the Royal Scots College, Hugh Semple, who was friends with the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega and had more plays in his personal library. …

” ‘In the 17th and 18th Centuries, collections of books in English were rare in Spain because of ecclesiastical censorship, but the Scots college had special authorisation to import whatever they wanted.’ …

“The rector of the Scots College, Father Tom Kilbride, said the college was proud such an important work had been discovered in its library.

“He said: ‘It says a lot about the kind of education the trainee priests were getting from the foundation of the college in Madrid in 1627, a rounded education in which the culture of the period played an important part. To think that plays would have been read, and possibly performed at that time is quite exciting. There was clearly a great interest in Spain at that time in English literature.’

“The RSC no longer trains men for the priesthood in Scotland, but offers preparatory six-month courses for those expressing a vocation, and holds regular retreats and conferences for the Scottish Catholic community.” More at the BBC, here.

Hat tip: ArtsJournal.com.

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Credit: Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images
To see the famous balcony, tourists crowd the backyard of the building in Verona said to be Juliet’s house.

Having read recently that there are tens of thousands of people writing PostcardsToVoters these days, I was intrigued to learn about a letter-writing club with quite a different purpose. The letter writers in today’s post are making sure that anyone who writes to Shakespeare’s Juliet gets a personalized response.

Bianca Hillier reports at Public Radio International’s The World, “Verona, Italy, is filled with references to Romeo and Juliet, the city’s most famous literary residents. Tourists can pretend to be Juliet by standing on the balcony at what is said to be her 14th-century house.

“They can also write Juliet a letter. Each year, tens of thousands of people do, asking for advice on life and love.  They may be surprised to learn Juliet writes back.

“The personalized responses come from volunteers with the Juliet Club. Their work began decades ago as a group of friends answering letters to Juliet. … The letters have grown into a worldwide phenomenon.

“ ‘The letters started arriving in Verona maybe 100 years ago. So it’s a long tradition that belongs to the story of the city,’ said Giovanna Tamassia, manager of the Juliet Club. Giovanna’s father, Giulio Tamassia, founded the club in 1972.

“People can send letters by traditional mail, email, or by dropping a letter in Juliet’s mailbox at her house in Verona.

‘If you think, “Who writes to Juliet? Who takes the pen and writes to someone they don’t know?” It can sound crazy,’ Tamassia said. ‘But if you read the letters, you discover it’s not crazy. It has a meaning.’ …

“When the letters finally make it to the club’s modest office in Verona, they are sorted by language. Tamassia said some people write in looking for advice on love, while some simply want to express their emotions.

“ ‘We can see in these letters that [this opportunity] is a really unique thing. It’s not like writing to a doctor or a psychologist or someone you know,’ Tamassia said. ‘They don’t know who will read the letter [or] who will answer. It’s like writing to yourself, in a way. Writing is a therapy.’

“Juliet’s secretaries, as they’re called, respond to letters every day during the club’s limited hours of operation. A few remote secretaries in the United States, England, and Moscow reply to the email messages, but most letters are answered from Romeo and Juliet’s home city of Verona.

“An influx of Americans began volunteering as secretaries after a 2010 movie starring Amanda Seyfried called ‘Letters to Juliet’ popularized the club. …

“ ‘When people come to reply, it’s very heartfelt. They feel like [they are] in a mission of love. In the name of Juliet,’ Tamassia said. … ‘It’s like seeing in the hearts of many people. [We] try to give help or support or friendship. But we also receive a lot when we have the chance to read others’ lives, others’ experiences. It opens your mind to different kinds of love.’

“There are no standard replies to the letters Juliet receives, Tamassia said, and it takes secretaries 30 to 60 minutes to craft each thoughtful response.

“Only one aspect of the letters is standardized: they’re all signed, ‘All my love, Juliet.’ ” …

“As the Juliet Club nears its 50th anniversary, Tamassia said there is no plan to close the doors anytime soon.

“ ‘It’s a job I have because I love it,’ she said. ‘It started as a passion but maybe, now, I can’t stop because the letters continue and continue to arrive.’

“The doors also remain open, in part, due to donations. A local bank pays for the office space and the city of Verona pays for the stamps.

“ ‘The letters are really like a treasure. So many love stories in all languages from every corner of the world,’ Tamassia said. ‘There isn’t anything else that can be compared.’

“Instructions for writing a letter to Juliet can be found on the Juliet Club’s website.” More at PRI, here.

You know what really impressed me? That the people in the club take 30 to 60 minutes to craft a response. That’s longer than I would have thought. This is not like writing to Santa and getting no response.

Hat Tip: Twitter

Photo: David Simchi-Levi MIT

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Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, from 1890. A new book describes one man’s hunt for Shakespeare’s library.

There are people I’m sure you know who get a bee in their bonnet about some topic, often to the point of wearing out their friends and relatives with a barrage of random facts. But although their enthusiasm can be wearing, there’s no doubt that their research provides benefits to many of us, whether their obsession is about an ancestor of ours or someone we all claim as our own, like Shakespeare.

This report is for Laurie, who is likely to appreciate the enthusiam of Shakespeare hound Stuart Kells.

Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “In an autumn in which scholars have unearthed Milton’s copy of Shakespeare in Philadelphia and parchment fragments from the 13th-century epic Le Roman de la Rose in Worcester [UK], Stuart Kells, author of the forthcoming Shakespeare’s Library, would like to be clear: he has not uncovered the Bard’s book collection, despite what the title might suggest.

“ ‘But I have confirmed its existence, clarified its scale and scope, and documented what happened to it,’ says the author, who has spent 20 years on the trail of Shakespeare’s personal library, and lays out his search in his new book. ‘It would be a very different book if I had gone out and discovered his library. No one has done that. It isn’t in one spot.’ …

“Kells is by no means the first person to have embark on a quest to find Shakespeare’s library during the last 400 years. As he writes, “for every species of book person, the idea of Shakespeare’s library – his personal collection of manuscripts, books, letters and other papers – is enticing, totemic, a subject of wonder.’ …

“Those not sold on his death, or destroyed or lost, ‘are sitting quietly, in cabinets and on shelves, in public and private collections around the world,’ he speculates. …

“ ‘There are things out there still being found and that’s part of the fun. … People are still finding chests of early letters, and there are volumes of multiple plays all bound together.

‘Play scripts were thought of as low literature for some time – they were slightly disreputable and weren’t taken seriously.’ …

“One of his tantalising findings is the potential former owner of a theologicial work by Agostino Tornielli. The book was published in Milan in 1610 and shipped to England, where it was bound in brown calfskin in 1615, the year before Shakespeare’s death. The cover panels on the book include an image of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the edges of the text block are decorated with elaborate patterning.

“The owner of the four bindings is not known, but there are a few hints.. … Writes Kells. ‘In tiny letters, the cover image is signed “I. S.” No one knows whether the initials are those of the block-maker, the bookbinder, the bookseller, the book’s owner, a patron or a dedicatee.’ … But the initials match those of Iohannes Shakespeare, William’s father, who dealt in leather hides – ‘no doubt some of them for bookbinding,’ Kells writes.

“Kells believes that one of the reasons for the disappearance of Shakespeare’s library is that the playwright was not an ‘avid inscriber of books,’ or much of a letter writer. ‘Practically minded and commercial, he does not seem to have been driven by abstract ideas of fame and posterity,’ Kells writes. …

“ ‘I’m quietly confident things are going to turn up,’ he says. “We now see the quarto editions as some of the greatest literary treasures in the world but, up until the 19th century, they were thought of in a different way. They are slight documents, little pamphlets, so it’s very probable they’re out there. We now have clearer eyes to search for these things and different ways of analysing them and dating things. We’re in a golden era of discovery right now.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. I must say, it takes imagination to interpret the initials of Shakespeare’s father on a piece of leather this way, but it is surely imagination that will find and assemble the lost library.

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Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images
Detail from CW Quinnell’s portrait of 17th century poet John Milton.

Never doubt the ability of a motivated academic researcher plodding along in dusty library carrels to uncover miracles. I credit the intense focus of youth, imagination, and the thrill of the chase.

Alison Flood writes at The Guardian, “Almost 400 years after the first folio of Shakespeare was published in 1623, scholars believe they have identified the early owner of one copy of the text, who made hundreds of insightful annotations throughout: John Milton.

“The astonishing find, which academics say could be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times, was made by Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren when he was reading an article about the anonymous annotator by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Bourne’s study of this copy, which has been housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, dated the annotator to the mid-17th century. … She also provided many images of the handwritten notes, which struck Scott-Warren as looking oddly similar to Milton’s hand.

“ ‘But I always think “I recognise that handwriting,” ‘ Scott-Warren said, ‘[and] normally I’m wrong. This time I thought: “The case is getting stronger and stronger.” ‘

As evidence stacked up, he said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ …

“Scott-Warren has made a detailed comparison of the annotator’s handwriting with the Paradise Lost poet’s. He also believes that the work the annotator did to improve the text of the folio – suggesting corrections and supplying additional material such as the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, along with cross-references to other works – is similar to work Milton did in other books that survive from his library, including his copy of Boccaccio’s Life of Dante.

“The scholar tentatively suggested in a blogpost that he might have identified John Milton’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, admitting that, ‘in this as in other cases, there’s usually a lot of wishful thinking, plus copious spinning of the evidence to make it seem plausible, and elision of anything that doesn’t seem to fit.’

“But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. ‘Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,’ said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. … ‘This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.’ …

“One highlighted section in The Tempest is the song: ‘Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands: / Courtsied when you have and kiss’d / The wild waves whist.’ The unusual rhyme, of ‘kiss’d’ and ‘whist,’ is echoed in Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: ‘The winds with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kist.’

“ ‘We would already have known about that allusion, they are the only two writers who used that rhyme, but you can see him marking it in the text and responding to it,’ said Scott-Warren. ‘It gives you a sense of his sensitivity and alertness to Shakespeare.’ ” More here.

(Looking for a comment from blogger Laurie Graves, a devoted Shakespeare fan.)

Photo: The Guardian
Milton’s annotated first folio of Shakespeare, recently discovered in the Free Library of Philadelphia Library by a Cambridge University fellow. “He said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ ”

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Photo: Craig Schwartz
Tom Hanks as Falstaff in the recent Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of Henry IV — the actor’s “Los Angeles stage debut.” Hanks went off the script when a medical emergency in the audience interrupted the show.

One always wonders if an actor known for subtlety in close-ups can make the shift to the grand gesture on the big stage. It’s such a different kind of acting, and I have sometimes been disappointed (e.g. the otherwise brilliant Liv Ullmann, the amazing-on-screen Sally Hawkins). But Tom Hanks, apparently, rose to the occasion in his recent performance as Falstaff at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles presentation of Henry IV. He channeled Falstaff so well, in fact, he was able to ad-lib in an emergency.

As Tara Bitran  reported at Variety in June, “A few scenes into Wednesday night’s performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ Tom Hanks had to go off script. …

“ ‘An audience member became dehydrated and had to be taken out,’ Heath Harper, Hanks’ theatrical dialect coach, told Variety. …

“One of the crew members with medical training assisted the audience member until they regained consciousness and the paramedics arrived. The medics performed tests on the guest in the crossover under the seats. Because this is the actor crossover as well, the show could not restart.

“ ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Harper said. “It credits the work we’ve done and Tom’s commitment to the character that he was able to just jump on the stage and improv as Falstaff like that. The audience absolutely ate it up.’ …

“Hanks addressed the ‘scurvy rogues who stood up from their seats’ to leave during the 20 minute pause, describing their departures as an ‘insult to all actors and to Shakespeare himself.’

“The video also shows Hanks-as-Falstaff warn: ‘Get back here or find this sword and many a dagger placed neatly in the tires of your carriage’ to laughs from the still-seated audience members.

“Hanks then returned back to center stage, inviting audience members to ‘come sit here, and I shall give thee a haircut,’ he offered. …

“Once Hanks and the production team received word that the audience member had recovered, ‘the show went on and the crowd was completely behind us to the end, giving us standing ovations all around,’ Harper said. … ‘All in all, I think it was a fantastic true-to-Shakespearean moment in LA,’ Harper said. ‘The crowd definitely got their money’s worth.’ ”

I love seeing this kind of thing happen. In fact, I still remembering seeing René Auberjonois do something similar in Alice in Wonderland when he wasn’t more than 14, presaging the brilliant career he would later have. And there’s a funny scene in Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, in which the actors are supposed to pretend that someone backstage got sick and that they are all discussing it chaotically downstage. I loved the line of the actor at the Antrim Players in Suffern: “It must have been the chocolate matzohs.”

Theater can be such a good training for life: Something always goes wrong.

More at Variety, here.

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Photo: BBC
An aerial performer rehearses on stage at Shakespeare’s Rose, a pop-up theater in York, England.

You’ve heard of pop-up libraries, pop-up gift stores, and pop-up restaurants. Now here comes a pop-up Shakespeare theater in York, England.

Ian Youngs writes at the BBC, “Shakespeare’s Rose, which [opened in April] and has cost £3m, is Europe’s first ‘pop-up’ Shakespearean theatre. …

“The temporary theatre has been built in a car park in 28 days to a circular design, similar to those erected on Bankside in Shakespeare’s day.

“It will stage four of his plays with a cast including [TV actor] Alexander Vlahos, who will play Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and Catesby in Richard III.

“As well as the audience members standing in the centre, a further 660 will watch from seats on three levels around the edge.

“Shakespeare and his contemporaries would recognise the design and ‘tricks’ like trapdoors and flying, which have hardly changed over the past 400 years, according to [producer James] Cundall.

” ‘They’d find everything they had in their theatre — they just probably wouldn’t recognise [Layher] scaffolding,’ he says. ‘Each length [of scaffolding] is probably about the same size as a standard oak beam, so that’s how Shakespeare’s oak became German scaffolding. …

“There was an actual Rose theatre in London in the Bard’s time, which was recreated for the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. …

“Professor Judith Buchanan of the University of York, who has advised on the pop-up theatre, said: ‘Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is not a historical reconstruction of the early modern Rose playhouse on Bankside, nor of any other early modern playhouse. It is an approximate and suggestive architectural allusion to the idea of the early modern playhouse.’

“The creators of the York theatre will hope that their venue doesn’t replicate some other aspects of the original Rose — which had to be closed occasionally due to riots or the plague, and which had one cast member who killed the other in a duel.”

Read more at the BBC, here, and at the Independent, here.

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Photo: Alamy Stock Photo
The new director at Shakespeare’s Globe, herself an actor, wants to take the hierarchy out of theater.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book about the making of Tony Kushner’s monumental Angels in America, which you may recall is a play about AIDS, the Reagan years, the awakening of gay activism, Mormons, the unscrupulous McCarthy-ite Roy Cohn, bias, love, and theater.

I’m still in the beginning, where I’m learning about a 1970s political-theater group in San Francisco called the Eureka. One of its high-minded goals was to take hierarchy out of theater.

That’s a goal yet to be met, or yet to be met for long, as appears from this article on Shakespeare’s theater by Mark Brown at the Guardian.

“The new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe has promised to give more power to the casts and audiences of plays, saying she wants to dismantle theatre hierarchies.

“Michelle Terry announced a new season opening with Hamlet and As You Like It. Eye-catchingly, none of the actors turning up for rehearsals will know which role they are taking, with the whole ensemble choosing who plays whom.

“In a similar vein, when the plays The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night go on tour, some audiences will be able to choose which one they want to see that night. …

“Some eyebrows were raised because Terry, while a hugely accomplished Shakespearean actor, has never directed. [In January] Terry said theatre culture was too ‘director-centric. with ‘too much responsibility on one person.’ …

“The first two plays will be presented by a Globe ensemble of 12 actors, two co-directors and one designer. The ensemble will decide who plays, for example, Hamlet or Rosalind.

“Terry said she had chosen Hamlet and As You Like It because they were both written around 1599, the year the original Globe was built, and were conceived with its architecture in mind.

“The democratisation will continue later in the season when one group of eight actors will have to learn three plays. …

“Terry promised diversity across the organisation, with the bottom line being: ‘We just have to do it. We can’t keep talking about it. … If our job is to hold a mirror up to nature then we’ve got to truly reflect the society in which we live.’

“Other new measures include allowing people into rehearsals, particularly school parties who might be heartened to see that even the actors don’t understand what some words and lines might mean.”

More here.

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Shakespeare continues to make headlines, working his magic on people from all walks of life — prisoners, refugee children, veterans, and more.

Recently, New York Times reporter Laura Collins-Hughes interviewed an Army veteran who found Shakespeare helped him over a trauma and who now uses the Bard to help other veterans.

Collins-Hughes writes, “Stephan Wolfert was drunk when he hopped off an Amtrak train somewhere in Montana, toting a rucksack of clothes and a cooler stocked with ice, peanut butter, bread and Miller High Life — bottles, not cans. It was 1991, he was 24, and he had recently seen his best friend fatally wounded in a military training exercise.

“His mind in need of a salve, he went to a play: ‘Richard III,’ the story of a king who was also a soldier. In Shakespeare’s words, he heard an echo of his own experience, and though he had been raised to believe that being a tough guy was the only way to be a man, something cracked open inside him.

“ ‘I was sobbing,’ Mr. Wolfert, now 50 and an actor, said recently over coffee in Chelsea. ‘I didn’t know you could have emotions out loud.’

“That road-to-Damascus moment — not coming to Jesus, but coming to Shakespeare — is part of the story that Mr. Wolfert tells in his solo show, ‘Cry Havoc!’ … Taking its title from Mark Antony’s speech over the slain Caesar in ‘Julius Caesar,’ it intercuts Mr. Wolfert’s own memories with text borrowed from Shakespeare. Decoupling those lines from their plays, Mr. Wolfert uses them to explore strength and duty, bravery and trauma, examining what it is to be in the military and what it is to carry that experience back into civilian life. …

“To Mr. Wolfert, who teaches controlled methods of accessing charged memories, the need to retool a lethal skill set for civilian life is a vital task that the military leaves people to figure out on their own.

“ ‘That’s something that we hold uniquely, I think, as veterans,’ he told [a] class. ‘We know what we’re capable of — even for the so-called peacetime or Cold War vets. The training’s still there. And I don’t care if you’re a clerk typist. You still fired a weapon at a human silhouette.’

“This, he believes, is where Shakespeare can prove an ally: as a means to understand trauma, and to start coming back from it.”

More at the NY Times, here. For more on Wolpert, check out a Shakespeare & Co. interview from last summer, here.

Photo: Folger Theatre
Actor Stephan Wolfert in 2014, performing his one-man show Cry “Havoc!” at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. The line is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

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Actor Finn Wittrock wrote recently at the New York Times about helping to start a mini Shakespeare company in the 1990s to entertain his parents and other theater professionals. He recalls with wonder his young self’s confidence of success.

“I was born in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. I lived there until I was 6, then moved to Evanston, Ill., and later to Los Angeles. But every summer for most of my youth, I would go back East with my brother, my mom and my dad, who most summers was acting or teaching for Shakespeare & Company. I would often be cast as a page or an altar boy in one of the professional productions.

“I went in lieu of a summer camp; I went to romp in the Berkshires, see old friends, get out of the city. But mostly I went for the Very Young Company.

“Starting at the age of 8 and until I was 16, my oldest friends and I would get together every summer: Rory, Reilly, Wolfe, and later my brother, Dylan, and Wolfe’s brother, Tiger (yes, their real names) would arrange five or six scenes from Shakespeare, rehearse them on our own time in the sun-drenched Berkshire afternoons and perform them for the adult company after one of their Mainstage shows. We began the company ourselves and it ended when we were no longer ‘very young.’

“For a kid, it was an epic undertaking; an outlet for pre- and post-adolescent energies. We were totally self-motivated; nobody told us to do it, which was in itself an incentive. We’d choose a scene based on our own criteria: Had the company done it before? Could we make fun of them for it? Could we put Reilly in a wig and have him play a girl? And, most important: Did it end in a sword fight? …

Sometimes I yearn to have the boldness of one who knows nothing, who jumps onstage for no other reason than because he is young and has a loud voice.”

Later in his essay, Wittrock recalls something the celebrated director Mike Nichols once said about his own early years: ” ‘Why was I so confident back then? I had no business being that confident.’ And yet he attributed most of his early success to that unreasonable confidence. …

“No one gave us permission to do the Very Young Company; no one ordered us to do it, and no one had to boost our confidence to do it. We just did it. We were just kids howling Shakespeare to the Berkshire trees, and our readiness was all.” More at the New York Times, here.

At one point in my  childhood, I, too, was confident. I thought, if my parents would only call the movie theater and set it up, four of us kids — the Gordons, one of my brothers, and I — would be a smashing success performing our version of “Snow White and Rose Red” before the feature. The grownups didn’t quite believe in it.

Some neighbors and I did perform an original play about a snowman for family members. One of the actors returned a copy of the pencil-scrawled script to me at my aunt’s funeral in 2002, decades later.

Photo: Lauren Lancaster for the NY Times
Finn Wittrock, right, and Rory Hammond, enacting the killing of Lady Macduff and her son in a mini-“Macbeth.” The young actors formed their own company more than 20 years ago to entertain their parents and other professionals at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.

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Our 5-year-old grandson’s friend had been planning to attend an American Repertory Theater musical with her grandmother today at 10 a.m. We decided to go, too.

The show was The Pirate Princess and was loosely (very loosely) based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was a hoot for me, and the young man in the photo seemed riveted. But whether he could make head or tail of the  convoluted plot, I have my doubts. It will be interesting to see down the road what he remembers — and whether he wants to see more plays.

The plot involves a brother and sister who get separated in a shipwreck (in this case, it’s thanks to a monster called the Kraken) and have separate adventures with characters who later mistake the sister dressed as a boy for the boy and vice versa. (I kept whispering in my grandson’s ear, “The pirate thinks he’s the girl that he thinks is a boy”; “The Queen thinks he’s his sister but doesn’t know his sister is a girl.” My grandson didn’t respond.)

There were songs, musical instruments, fancy costumes, pirates storming up lighted platforms in the middle of the audience, sword fights, and imaginative special effects. I especially like the jellyfish created by glowing umbrellas with streamers, carried along the aisles in the dark. The Kraken with his many legs was pretty great, too.

After the show, we had hot chocolate and cookies at the Darwin on Mt. Auburn Street. I’m not sure what our grandson will be able to tell his parents about the madcap entertainment he witnessed, but bits and pieces will likely emerge over time. I myself saw Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland when I was four, but I didn’t become a theater nut until I was 10.

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Today would have been Shakespeare’s 451st birthday, and I am seeing testimonials all over Facebook and twitter. So it seems like a good day to write about the Sonnet Project in New York City.

Stuart Miller wrote at the New York Times about “an ambitious project to create a short film for each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, with each movie shot at a different New York City location.

“ ‘It brings Shakespeare to people who might not be in touch with it, and we can use social media like Twitter and Instagram to spread the word,’ [actor Billy] Magnussen said. The endeavor, called the Sonnet Project, grew from the work of the New York Shakespeare Exchange, a local theater group.

“The group, which started the project in 2013, just completed its 100th film: Sonnet 27, starring Carrie Preston, an Emmy award-winning actress, and filmed on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge [and premiering] April 8 on the Sonnet Project website and app. …

“Some directors found inspiration at the location where the films were shot. At Leidy’s Shore Inn, a 110-year-old bar on Staten Island, Daniel Finley, who was making Sonnet 19, filmed Laurie Birmingham, an actress who works mostly in regional theater, as a world-weary regular musing over her drink.

“ ‘We walked in at 10 a.m. and the regulars were there watching OTB and scratching their lotto tickets,’ he said. ‘We learned some of their stories and Laurie based her character on those impressions.’ ” More at the New York Times, here.

Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
A crew filming Sonnet 108 at the John T. Brush stairway. 

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National Public Radio recently featured a story on the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III, the English king that Shakespeare fans love to hate. What does the unearthing of the king’s 15th century remains have to tell the 21st century?

The woman who found him, Philippa Langley, is decribed by NPR as “an amateur historian with a passion for Richard III. And one day, a good decade ago, her research took her into Leicester, and she had a kind of bizarre experience in a car park in Leicester, where she suddenly thought, for no particular reason at all, that she was standing on Richard’s grave. And at that moment, she just said to herself, ‘I just want to excavate Richard.'”

It was as if Richard III was sending a message.

“It happened in stages. The remarkable thing was that they actually found it on the first day of the dig. They were just preparing the ground and [archaeologist Jo Appleby] found a small bit of leg, a leg bone. So she carries on digging, and gradually she uncovers this complete curved spine, and it connects up with the neck, and she sits back and she looks at it, and she says to herself, ‘This is Richard III.’

“The statistical likelihood of them hitting the skeleton is zero — there were so many coincidences and chances that made this happen. …

“The radiocarbon dating showed the man had died at the right time to be somebody who had died at the Battle of Bosworth. The anatomy of the man matched very precisely the phyiscal descriptions we have of Richard. For example, he’s described quite clearly as being quite a frail man, and that is exactly how the skeleton is.”

Richard’s defenders have always said that Shakespeare may have written an amazing play, but he gave Richard a bad rap. Since I have a tendency to believe the truth of fiction more than the facts of history, I better stay out of the argument and let you read the rest of the story for yourself. More here.

Art: Richard III (Reuters)

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A Syrian actor who visited a refugee camp, felt compassion for the children, and returned to help them put on a play decided to start at the top. Only the best playwright would do.

From the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, NY Times reporter Ben Hubbard describes the scene: “On a rocky patch of earth in this sprawling city of tents and prefab trailers, the king, dressed in dirty jeans and a homemade cape, raised his wooden scepter and announced his intention to divide his kingdom. His elder daughters, wearing paper crowns and plastic jewelry, showered him with false praise, while the youngest spoke truthfully and lost her inheritance.

“So began a recent adaptation here of King Lear. For the 100 children in the cast, it was their first brush with Shakespeare, although they were already deeply acquainted with tragedy. All were refugees who had fled the civil war in Syria. …

“ ‘The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,’ said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor known at home for his role in ‘Bab al-Hara,’ an enormously popular historical drama that was broadcast throughout the Arab world.

“Last year, he and his French wife moved to Jordan, where friends invited him to help distribute aid in Zaatari. …

“Children he met in the camp made him promise to return, and he did — with a plan to show the world that the least fortunate Syrian refugees could produce the loftiest theater. …

“The mere fact that the play was performed was enough for the few hundred spectators. Families living in nearby tents brought their children, hoisting them on their shoulders so they could see. …

“The crowd burst into applause, and a number of the leading girls broke into tears. Mr. Bulbul said they were overwhelmed because it was the first time anyone had clapped for them.”

More here, at the NY Times, where you can also see a slide show and watch a video about the refugee-camp theater initiative.

Photo: Warrick Page for The New York Times

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I’ve blogged before about programs that use theater for healing purposes and programs that use the arts specifically to help veterans.

Now Dana Ferguson writes at The Los Angeles Times about Shakespeare getting into the act and easing vets into the job world.

“Fifteen years ago former Pfc. and military police officer Jerry Whiteside had two masks tattooed on his left bicep, one smiling, one frowning. …

“Little did he know that more than a decade later, he would be symbolically reunited with the images imprinted on his skin.

“His journey began at the end of a 30-year struggle with drugs and alcohol, he said. Whiteside, a Chicago native turned Angeleno who had served in the Marine Corps from 1972 to ’76, sought help from the Veterans Administration in Los Angeles. He completed a detoxification program in 2011 and for this summer was referred to the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles to do various jobs on the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Whiteside, 61, and some 30 other veterans of the Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and the Gulf wars assisted in building the set and working odd jobs with the production, which continues through July 28.

“Shakespeare Center artistic director Ben Donenberg said employing veterans stemmed from another of the company’s outreach programs, Will Power to Youth, which hires young Angelenos to study and perform Shakespeare plays. After seeing alumni of the program serving in the armed services and later seeking jobs at home, Donenberg said, the company decided to extend its employment program opportunity to veterans, starting last year. …

“One of the things we want to do as a company is to ease the transition to civilian life, and part of that is on the civilians; there’s only so much the veterans can do,” [Chris Anthony, associate artistic director at the Shakespeare Center] said. “The rest of us have to see them in a different light. It’s something we need to work on as civilians.” More.

Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times
Military veteran Jerry Whiteside passes out programs before each Shakespeare Center performance.

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The Concord Players brought a one-hour version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to the lawn of the library yesterday.

The Prospero was perhaps too young, considering that “The Tempest” is an aging Shakespeare’s valedictory, and there was some awkward overacting, but gee whiz, they had to shout to be heard outdoors. So, good for them to work so hard to give the public free theater in summer!

Several sea nymphs doubled as ushers and were lovely to behold.

concord-library-lawn-show

The-Tempest-sea-nymph

prospero-miranda-umbrella

jay-newlon-ariel-tempest

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