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CS in Cadiz: photo: Eve Monrad
6/16/03, Ashland:    Romeo and Juliet
6/16/03:                  Richard II
6/16/03:                 A Midsummer Night’s Dream
5/4/03, Glendale:    Measure for Measure
5/3/03:                   The Stag King (Il re cervo)

June 16, 2003: The Play’s the thing

Wonderful, thrice wonderful, to see three Shakespeare plays, written within a year many think, performed within three days. And three of the best, according to Harold Bloom, with whom I will not dispute, not today.

They are all lyrical, he notes: Romeo and Juliet, a lyrical tragedy; Richard II, a lyrical history; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a lyrical comedy. Three plays contemplating most aspects of human life, all in the most splendid poetic language.

I saw Romeo first, and came out of the performance with tears in my eyes. Lindsey would tell you that’s not unusual; I’m the kind who would weep watching a particularly effective laundromat. But it’s not quite true; it takes a combination of affecting language, credible performance, and resonance with some kind of personal experience to loosen those springs.

This production of Romeo and Juliet is tight and tense. Backstage center drop alternates between two devices: a huge clock whose hands move from one scene to the next, and a huge projected photograph of Juliet’s face. The device is constrained between two flat walls, floor to flies, angling back from the proscenium to the back wall; on these are projected the words

I    N         F     A     I     R         (clock)         V     E    R     O    N    A

Everything is black and white. The production is modern-day, with cell phones and pagers. Swords are replaced by handguns, though switchblades are frequent too. There’s a certain homage here to West Side Story, of course, especially since this Juliet, Nancy Rodriguez, resembles Mia Farrow, if that’s who played the role for Bernstein.

She is magnificent. Kevin Kenerly’s Romeo seems to upstage her a bit during the performance, but on leaving the theater you realize it was Rodriguez who provided all the "nut" of the play, and that’s as it should be: one of the most important points of the tragedy is its opposition of male and female versions of coming of age, the underlying point being the artifice and injustice of the male view of the female component of social life.

Rodriguez really did seem to be only fourteen — I know, it’s in fact thirteen in the text — at the beginning of the play, and seemed in the finale to have transcended years, to have become completely experienced and mature; to be even greater than human, to be nearly Nature herself in her sad awareness of the transience of life, of the eternity of committed love, of the impossibility of maintaining as a permanent emotion the impulse of romantic (we would say today: sexual) love.

Kenerly, who is of (apparently partial) African ancestry, brought a somewhat Method approach to his role; he made me think occasionally of the young Marlon Brando. He too grew in the performance, of course; from the flirtations and predatory lover of Rosalind to the amazed and idealizing lover of Juliet — and of love itself, the love that not only engenders but also maintains and nourishes.

Duane Boutté’s Mercutio seemed problematic at first, but resolved itself. The Queen Mab speech was madness, but fanciful, not raving. Andrea Frye as the Nurse, who counters Mercutio in mediating Shakespeare’s poetic tragedy and his audience, was detailed, keen, objective.

Loretta Greco, the director, cast the Montagues and Capulets as upperclass supercilious families in a decadent and frivolous society. The party scene was, I suppose, a Rave, though I’m not quite sure what Raves are. Friar Laurence (Richard Howard), on the other hand, seemed his medieval self, preoccupied with poisonous botanicals.

The role of Escalus, the Prince (and so the Law) of Verona, can be merely abstract, routine, and accessory, a mortal sort of deus ex machina. But Greco’s direction of Robert Vincent Frank’s performance makes it important: it is he who personifies the real and necessary villain of the play, necessary because, in fact, there is no accommodation of man’s natural imperatives with the social constraints he has invented through which to channel them.

The result is hopeless, violent, and tragic, and I left the theater sad and shaken.
Next came Richard II, the tragic poet-king who is both Escalus and Shakespeare, both Law and Poetry, but in love with only himself (though tender toward his Queen) and the divine framework which has made him England’s Sun King.

This play was given outdoors, in very traditional costume, conventionally directed but focussed by Libby Appel, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play is resistant: it is hard to "get into,” at least for me; and Richard is not a very sympathetic character, as Shakespeare introduces him making arbitrary and hasty decisions affecting the lives of two of his close supporters, Harry Bolingbroke (afterwards Henry IV) and the Duke of Aumerle, son of the Duke of York.

This is the close of the 14th century, and the English Renaissance is a ways off in the future. But Richard’s poetic nature prefigures its sentiment and its metaphysical speculation, if not perhaps its scholarship and worldly sophistication. David Kelly plays Richard as hesitant between introspection and exhibition, pausing to find within a laboring mind the clever poetic expression of his irritation or surprise or irony, then setting it forward to the maximum effect.

Appel manages the background characters subtly, letting them show and share their amusement and impatience at their king’s eccentricities; and she capitalizes on the few passages Shakespeare provides to lend depth and nuance to major supporting roles: Barry Kraft’s Gaunt, James Newcomb’s Harry, Kenneth Albers’s York, Linda Morris’s Queen Isabella.

The play grows slowly toward a historical parallel to Romeo and Juliet, and you might say Richard himself incarnates that journey, beginning as a rash and over-masculine Romeo-type, ending as an introspective, comprehending, powerless Juliet-type. Here the nut is his near-final speech, his great soliloquy as he awaits his execution, stripped of his gorgeous curly red hair, his kingly robes:

(Richard:) Music do I hear?
Ha, ha! keep time. How sour sweet music is
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To check time broke in a disorder’d string;
But, for the concord of my state and time,
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numb’ring clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell. So sighs, and tears, and groans,
Show minutes, times, and hours; but my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke’s proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack of the clock.
This music mads me. Let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.

I heard this beautifully declaimed just a few days after reading a marvelous interview with Barbara Thornton, the late specialist in the performance of such early music as that of Hildegard of Bingen, who writes of the medieval artists working in a stable world "proven... to operate according to stable metaphysical laws", and quotes Robert Edwards ( author of a book called Ratio and Invention : ”Intelligible structures locate meaning in larger relations."

Richard II is important for us because it records, in fact reproduces, the moment when the stable world structure, the divine succession of kings, was questioned. The times are out of joint. Of course Richard II, the play, is difficult for us, long and sustained; but it could hardly be otherwise. Thornton also thinks that ”formal experiments have to do with deep levels of perception (as Plato said about geometry being the most instinctive way to recognize he principle of form), not with attention-span.”

Richard II mediates between Shakespeare’s time and our own; or, rather, allows us to look at our own place in our own time from the perspective of Shakespeare’s. As I type this Stefan reads out Gaunt’s Act II sermon from the other side of the living room:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas’d out — I die pronouncing it —
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

But we are rarely in the mood to take a long historical view of the pressing events of our own time (though my friend Whiting has recently sent me a fine survey of the impending American Empire, published in Le Monde Diplomatique by the historian Eric Hogsbawm).

Shakespeare understands this, shrugs, and writes a fantastic lyrical comedy in which once again an authority is deciding who marries whom; Nature overrides Society; poetry unleashes Sentiment — I use the word in its root form — which enables both Awareness and Insight.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a favorite play of mine, and where the previous two plays rated an "A" from this retired critic, I’ve seen enough other Dreams to allow this one only a B plus. Kenneth Albers, who plays York in this year’s Richard II, directs this MND in a curious mood: he stages and dresses it in a fantastic amalgamation of Elizabethan and Edwardian references; he casts the lovers, the fairies, and the rude mechanicals brilliantly; he carefully paces the three levels of play, and the transitions among them — but he often encourages his cast to singsong their lines.

All three of these plays are written in strict iambic pentameter, and often in rhyming verse. Shakespeare himself makes fun of this in the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe. This was marvelously done, and brought down the house. But it infected much of the rest of the play, particularly the role of Lysander. Oh well. A small flaw.

You remember the plot: the Duke of Athens is to marry the reluctant (and vanquished) Queen of the Amazons; he assigns Hermia to her suitor Demetrius, though she loves Lysander and Demetrius is beloved by his jilted girl friend Helena.

Meantime Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are having their own marital problems, and Peter Quince is rehearsing Nick Bottom and the other village louts in their play. Puck goes (round the world in forty minutes) for a love-juice flower to force passionate love between the infected sleeper and whoever he first sees on awakening, confusing the Hermia & Helena business, and mating Titania to the ass-headed Bottom. And so on.

Now all this is beautifully achieved here in Ashland, barring the sometimes prosaic declamation. But why has Shakespeare gone to all this trouble, writing some of his most glorious poetry for such a foolish romp? Because, I think, the events of this midsummer dream are a vision, a version of what we strive for — passion, play, tenderness, irrelevance, and total commingling of the orders. The stability of the medieval world having crumbled, let’s go for total confusion.

Shakespeare puts us back in the pagan world. His fairies are really minor gods and goddesses, very minor, naiads and dryads at best; and the Duke does impose some degree of lawful restraint on proceedings; but it’s basically hormones and foolishness propelling these people. And Albers, the director — or someone — nails this down by double-casting Duke and Oberon, Amazon and Titania; the mortals here — "what fools these mortals be," Puck observes unbelievingly — are defined by the extremes of Political and Natural Authority:

and they transcend both, simply by being animals.

And Shakespeare does all this, here in his Dream and in his History and in Romeo, through the power of his poetry. And it is the beauty and power, and truth, of that poetry that catches you, and brings the tears to your eyes. And once again Richard’s words about Time and Music reveal what’s going on here: Shakespeare’s plays, like Mozart’s music, are so measured, so ultimately correct in their measure, that while describing the tragedy, or comedy, or even the history of human yearning for the ideal, they very nearly also attain the ideal.

And here Stefan calls from across the living room: Read this, Charles, from T.S. Eliot’s "Burnt Norton":

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the coexistence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.


A Noise Within:The Stag King (Il re cervo); Measure for Measure
by Charles Shere
Los Angeles, May 3-4, 2003

WE’RE LIVING IN SUCH extraordinary times that everything is heightened. Great theater accordingly becomes even more greatly thrilling, more relevant. This is both the test and the proof of greatness.

One of the most interesting repertory companies I know of on the West Coast is A Noise Within, a group spun away from San Francisco’s A.C.T. a few years ago, resident in a blowsy old fourstorey concrete lodge building in downtown Glendale.

In December we saw there a fine production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and a stylish one of Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love. Just last weekend we saw another double bill, this one even more brilliantly counterpoised.

Carlo Gozzi’s Il re cervo appeared in 1762, an amalgam of commedia dell’arte, puppet theater, and political satire all wrapped up in what Hollywood calls "romantic comedy."

The plot has been simplified in this production, which uses an edition and translation (by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery) and which owes a certain amount to that directed by Andrei Serban for the American Repertory Theater. (A version toured to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Theater in March 2001.)

The king of Serendippo, Deramo, is interviewing potential queens, turning down one after another with the help of a magic statue who smiles at those who lie — some because they already have their loves; others because they’re after only the kingdom, not the king.

Finally he finds Angela, a girl who truly loves him, for himself alone. Unfortunately the king’s evil minister Tartaglia is lusting after her already; furthermore, he wants his own daughter Clarice on the throne — though she’s already committed to Leandro.

He takes advantage of the king’s second magic trick, by which one can trade one’s body — but not one’s soul — with any dead creature one happens upon. King and minister go hunting and kill a stag; king takes stag’s body; Tartaglia takes the king’s.

Angela isn’t fooled, partly because Tartaglia continues to stam, stamm, stammer even while wearing the king’s body; mostly because his abrupt lechery has replaced the king’s tenderness.

In more ordinary times this would be simply a fairy tale. Alex Jaeger’s costumes and the uncredited makeup confirm Gozzi’s reputation as a fantasist, and Joseph Graves’s direction adroitly contains the magic and fantasy even while developing a fair degree of human sensibility in the plot, the lines, and the interrelationships among this fine cast.

Stephen Rockwell is close to simpering but ultimately winning as the king; funny and ultimately persuasive as Tartaglia. His counterpart, William Dennis Hunt, is impressively villainous.

Abby Craden is captivating as the perplexed Angela, but upstaged by Jill Hill, who plays the two most prominent rivals for queen. Apollo Dukakis is a wonderfully stoical comic Pantalone; Mitchell Edmonds is the conniving Brighella; Wesley Mann the Truffaldino; Christopher R.C. Bosen the lovestruck Leandro.

The King Stag, as it’s known in this production, is light, romantic, and unsubstantial — or was, until Measure for Measure unfolded itself the next night. The two plays then began to speak to one another: both are about transformation, about balance, about the possibility, or impossibility, of an individual (in both his consciousness and his unconsciousness) ever truly being able to be free of his own body, to see the context of his own life — social or Natural — free from the preconceptions formed by his own persona.

Measure for Measure is, I think, the darkest of Shakespeare’s problem plays; and it can slip easily into melodrama or absurdity. It needs superb actors, and they must be kept in balance by an intelligent and visionary director. I can’t imagine it going much better than it did in this production, directed with rare thoughtfulness and depth by Jessica Kubzansky.

Measure for Measure is a play about Justice. Justice is at the bottom of every human perplexity, including of course the greatest perplexity of them all, the incompatibility of life and consciousness. Without life there is no consciousness, but with consciousness comes the awareness of death. Only a Zen response can resolve, if "resolve" is the word, the perplexity: even though justice can only exist, even as a concept, in a context that also requires (and so condones) injustice, the only transcendent Justice must comprise both. Lifedeath.

Shakespeare was no doubt writing about — or writing in reaction to — the "justice system" of his day. It was perhaps more lurid than that of ours, meaning contemporary America’s: but the "perhaps" is more than rhetorical. I can’t refrain from quoting here a poem that just arrived in today’s mail:

The Nightly News

While the beautiful flames of war
Dance and scream across millions of screens—
For each of us our own small window into Hell—
Dozens of Dantes tell it like it is—
Or as it was,
For who can tell real from replay?

So sit back down:
Watch the map with the beautiful names
From a child’s fairy tale
Blossom in flames.
They say we will teach them how to live
As we do.
Stay tuned.
Watch at your convenience.
It will wait while we pause for dinner,
Conversation about real life,
Lived in real time that seems unreal,
Away from the glare,
And somehow pricked with guilt:
We owed it our attention—
That window—
"The least we can do."

—Elizabeth Flory
The Readers Rejoinder,
no. 178

TEACH THEM HOW TO LIVE as we do: this is the lesson of Measure for Measure, which, as Harold Bloom rightly states, is clearly an extended dramatic commentary (though not, I think, a "hidden blasphemy") on the Sermon on the Mount: "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

Shakespeare’s play is the inversion of a fairy tale. It is perhaps the first pure absurdist play, for it reveals as no play had, unless a Greek play I do not know, that justice is an absurdist concept, that there can be no just Measure for Measure.

The issue in the play is the incompatibility of Nature and Morality, meaning by "morality" any entire social system of ethical, moral, or conventional behavior. Civilization means nothing if it does not mean the attempted suppression of Nature. Shakespeare sets his plot on a narrower aspect of this huge truth, sexual behavior — and why not? The theme arrests and titillates his audience. But I think it’s clear he means licentiousness as synecdoche: the sexual urge is only one manifestation of the arrogance of the self against the other.

Shakespeare has treated the same theme by centering it on other manifestations of similar arrogance: Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida…

In every case, of course, Death stands ready to resolve the perplexity, for Death is Nature, and Nature inescapably holds the winning hand. Therein lies the darkness of the dark comedy. But the greatness of Measure for Measure is not its darkness but its comedy, for Shakespeare is laughing with lust Zen laughter at his own plot, at Harold Bloom, at justice and injustice, at life and death.

The play is pagan. This is nothing new: the three plays mentioned above are similarly pagan. One of Bloom’s abiding flaws, in his provocative Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human is his inability to remove Shakespeare from Christianity, and Christianity from Shakespeare. Measure for Measure is essentially Epicurean, as the Duke’s great speech (to Claudio) suggests in one almost hidden phrase: After death,

Thou art not thyself;
For thou exists on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust.

And Claudio’s response is hardly Christian, or Moslem either; he’s in no hurry for any appointment with Heaven,
…to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;…

Every aspect of this play of Balance leads inevitably to paradox, and paradox is answerable only to dissolution. So Bloom is perhaps right to identify the central figure — though not the most prominent, who is the ironically named Angelo; nor the most intriguing, surely the Duke; nor the most captivating, the "fantastic" Lucio — but the figure the most central to Shakespeare’s purpose: the outrageous prisoner Barnardine, perpetually drunk and constantly about to be executed, present in only two scenes and all but mute; but in his dissoluteness the personification of Shakespeare’s own sermon:

Master Barnardine, you must rise and be hanged, Master Barnardine. [IV.iii.23-24]
(A variant of that old hospital joke: Patient! Patient! Wake up! It’s time for your sleeping pill!)

AND YET… Charles Jasper Sisson, in the edition of the complete Shakespeare that was my college textbook forty years ago and more, writes

There is, in fact, nothing to encourage the view that Measure for Measure reflects an access of pessimism in the dramatist. In none of his plays does he see life more steadily, or more as a whole. And it is, in the highest degree, optimistic, though it faces the facts of corruption in human life and society, and presents some aspects of life with unflinching realism, tempered by mirth… The play, in fact, asserts individual responsibility, against Commodity and opportunism, an old enemy of Shakespeare’s, and yet accepts the divine power of forgiveness upon repentance. [Op. cit, p. 88]

The key, I think, lies in the slightest of the major characters, Isabella, the one character who is apparently, indisputably, Christian, to the extent that she will sacrifice her brother’s life to safeguard her own virtue, which is what she believes her chastity to be. Like so many of Shakespeare’s key characters she undergoes a sea-change, finding the root of perceived lechery in her own fair qualities, asking the Duke to forgive Angelo:

I partly think
A due sincerity governed his deeds,
Till he did look on me.

CHASTITY, VIRTUE, INDEED JUSTICE itself, are not the qualities of an individual: they are situational. At the beginning of the play we see a Vienna gone to exaggerated immorality, the result, we are told, of the Duke’s irresolute governance, his generous reluctance

…to give fear to use and liberty,
Which have for long run by the hideous law,
As mice by lions…

The Duke leaves it to his deputy Angelo to enforce moralities, not, we feel, to improve Vienna, but to disclose the ethical problems of justice and of governance. At the end of the play he has learned from Shakespeare’s sermon on the opposition of Law and Nature:

Th’offence pardons itself [V.i.540]

and henceforth his Vienna will return to better balance, of which the resolving marriages are emblematic — for even chaste Isabella succumbs to Nature’s correction of her exaggeratedly Christian concept of virtue, which relies on the complete denial of Nature and her urgings.

One problem remains, to end this problem play: the relationship of Duke and Lucio. Here is Shakespeare’s most extreme opposition of wise man and fool. They badger one another continually. Lucio must oppose; he must have the final word; even facing capital threat. But Bloom is correct: it is Barnardine who has the final word, because it is in fact final: he will not. Lucio’s course is not to refuse but to bicker: first attacking, then making excuses, he represents an attorney for either party, the accuser or the condemned.

As I have said, the greatness of so great a play grows as it is considered in great times. Jessica Kubzansky’s direction projects this greatness constantly. It begins in the problematic opening scene, which makes virtually no sense on the page. (Sisson refers to the defective, dubious state of the first sources in this respect.) Under her direction, Joel Swetow is more than hesitant: he is confused and uncertain — choose Angelo, or his older brother Escalus (interesting name!) for his deputy?

Throughout the rest of the play Swetow threads his trajectory, feeling his way, apparently never wholly persuaded that his intuitive mistrust of the law, and his need to verify its aptness, is his proper course. Until the moment he is first struck by Isabella’s — Isabella’s predicament: not her beauty, not even her passion or her articulate argument, but the existential predicament in which she finds herself, easily renouncing her own physical vitality, but imprisoned by the general physicality of Claudio, of Angelo, ultimately even of the Duke.

Michael Sean McGuinness is a remarkable Angelo. He carries himself just a bit overweeningly in that first scene: we know immediately no good can come of the Duke’s deputizing. Angelo is absent from the rest of the first act, and from most of the first scene of the second — how ingeniously Shakespeare sets the tempo of these long constructions! But then comes the first true crisis of the play, the exchange between him and Isabella, she pleading for her brother’s life, Angelo pleading — insisting, rather — on "justice":

Be you content, fair maid.
It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him. He must die to-morrow.

Throughout this scene McGuinness looks more and more the spitting image of John Ashcroft. Like so many in the present administration of our country, Angelo is a dogmatic. His eyes narrow with the certitude of his privileged doctrine: he need not consider fairness, or appropriateness, or even (or least of all!) the pain of those he ruins: he is beholden only to the Law.

There’s no hint, in this production, that he has any vice but this apparent virtue. His passion for Isabella develops as something more than simple lust: it is aroused by her words as well as her beauty. Of course one can interpret this as a simple evil fetishism, but I think Shakespeare means more than this — or, if not, means us to look for the meaningfulness within such a fetishism. Angelo is aroused by an awareness he has no means to process, a sudden awareness that there is a human passion that goes beyond law.

Where it goes is back to Nature. Isabella undertakes a similar transformation, but its full dimension is only suggested — one of the few flaws in this brilliant play. Perhaps it was forced by an actor less capable than others in Shakespeare’s company. Lisa Morrison is only slightly less successful than the the rest of this cast: but then, this is perhaps the most difficult female role in all of Shakespeare, a combination of Juliet and Portia, lacking the joy and physicality that facilitate actresses playing Rosalind or Olivia or Kate.

My only misgiving with this wonderful production was its view of Lucio, played somehow both broadly and cynically by Maury Sterling. He implied a secret knowledge of Angelo, bordering on carnal knowledge, that adds dimension to a play already rich enough. I find this distracting, but have to concede its effectiveness. Ultimately nothing is out of measure in this Measure for Measure.