There are things we all know. Communism works on paper; the Civil War was about slavery; Shakespeare was a genius; and on and on. These are societal truths that are passed along, and one can utter them freely in public without the fear of sounding stupid, or having the opinion challenged or, most importantly, without having to know anything about the subject at hand.
The trouble, though, is that such generalities only exist in a black and white world, and ours is a world of vibrant color. Communism works given certain conditions, based upon certain models of human behavioral and philosophical position. The Civil War was equally about the power of individual States and the Federal Government coupled with a growing animosity within the Union beginning in Jacksonian democracy. And William Shakespeare cranked out some pure shit.
That’s not, of course, to say the man wasn’t a genius. He was. His best works, “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Romeo and Juliet”, are amongst the greatest works in the canon of English literature. Hell, any man who can compose these lines:
I tell thee that her sparkling eyes
Do lighten forth sweet love’s alluring fire;
And in her tresses she doth fold the looks
Of such as gaze upon her golden hail.
Her bashful white, mix’d with the morning’s red,
Luna doth boast upon her lovely cheeks;
Her front is beauty’s table, where she paints
The glories of her gorgeous excellence.
How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes!
Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe
This is the short and the long of it
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall
Clearly has chops. Shakespeare’s place in the body of literature, though, is so monumental that all of his works are considered masterpieces, even those that are either poorly written, patently absurd or painfully dull. Though there may be the Gore Vidals and Alan Blooms of the world, who swear by the Bard and think nothing will ever surpass his majesty which evinces itself in every word the man penned, the rest of the thinking world can, pretty early on, realize that like any great writer Shakespeare has some masterpieces, some decent works and some works that are plain bad (“Cymbaline”, “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, “Henry IV”, “Timon of Athens” and “King John” spring quickly to mind).
The problem with Shakespeare isn’t the hallowed ground afforded him, though- it’s how that ground eats into the rest of the culture landscape, leaving barren that which could see fruit. More on that in a moment. First, the shows:
The Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Othello” is, at best, mediocre. Actors wander around the expansive stage with no visible sense of purpose or comradery, deliver vast swaths of dialog while waving their hands grandly, then (if they are a woman) slink off stage or (if they are a man) run off stage. There’s no cohesive vision driving the production, nothing new or interesting in this staging of the 400-year old play. It’s a lesson in elocution from people dressed oddly.
The impending mediocrity of the show does receive interesting foreshadowing – for the curtain speech an actor emerges to ask the audience they silence their phones and state that no recording is allowed. The actor then proceeds to ask the audience to applaud for the three corporate sponsors of the show, “without whom it wouldn’t have been possible”. The paying audience ($40 a pop) dutifully obliged. Last I checked one need not pay for the rights to stage Shakespeare, and the Orlando Shakespeare Center paid their dollar-a-year rent en-mass with a $30 check in 1997, so the only cost I can see is utilities. The corporate sponsors, then, are really to thank for the spectacle.
The two greatest elements of the show, the stage and the costumes, end up causing more problems than they’re worth. Set on three tiers (not unlike a small “Q*Bert” stage) with two sizable rectangles down stage, the set is gorgeous – from the attention to detail in the paint, to the crafted arches, to the chaining matte behind the false bricks; it’s all very convincing. Sadly, Director Brian Vaughn chooses to stage virtually all of the action downstage center; meaning anytime two people are talking to one another (or, in this show, at one another) they end up sitting on the rectangles. Seeing as there are usually wearing swords, this leads to a fair amount of clunking, and left most of the blocking obviously staged, with characters in a perpetual state of movement for no other reason than to move. Worse still, to preface act V the steps at the rear of the stage pull out, revealing a bed. Wonderful. Then comes, literally, three minutes of the audience watching the actors make the bed – sheet, blanket, pillows – the whole nine yards. Riveting theater it isn’t.
The costumes in the show are sumptuous, and a keen eye has been paid to details, from the proper manner of armor to the correct seal for the City of Venice at the time. Unfortunately, as the actors aren’t, presumably, used to wearing the garb of Elizabethan Venice, they often stumble over bits of clothing, or, most annoyingly, rest their hands on the pommels of their rapiers (which are held in what’s known as a “frog”, a short sling). The rapiers don’t have scabbards, so leaning ones hand with the weight down on a frog is about the same as a modern soldier holding his M4 rifle with his finger perpetually on the trigger – all one is accomplishing is straining the leather, which would eventually break.
When the swords come out of their frogs, nothing particularly exciting happens. The fight choreography is sufficient but boring. Again, the actors clearly haven’t been told what to do – when, in a drunken brawl, four soldiers draw their weapons they are all holding their swords in a different way. One of them, amusingly, in his left-hand (the only rapier of the time one could use with their left hand was the Milanese; everyone was taught to fight right-handed). The one thing the actors accomplish together is to all, when holding their weapons, expose as much of their body to their opponent as possible. As they pace around one another it looks more like a pending gunfight in the old American West than pending European swordplay. Most perplexing, though, is Othello. Rather than take a rapier the Moor favors a scimitar. Whenever fighting, though, his massive, sweeping, heavy sword isn’t used to simply crash through the thin steel of his Italian counterparts; instead the man who is meant to be a grand warrior and military genius uses the weapon as one uses a knitting-needle. In act V a soldier (and his two pound rapier) manages to keep low the drawn scimitar (easily 4 pounds and 60 times as wide) of Othello. Bizarre.
Vaughn further frustrates by making Iago’s asides “a-fronts”, inasmuch as Iago begins talking (and on several occasions actually pointing directly at) the audience. With Iago one has two choices: the complete maniac who wreaks havoc just to do so, or the calculating puppet-master who revels in the genius of his own plans. These asides try to make him both, which only serves to make him neither. Even more perplexingly, after Othello suffers his seizure and is advised by Iago to retreat so he can hear Casio’s “confession”, the weakened General, panting and moaning, uses the railing in the audience to help get him to the balcony. Is the audience now part of the set? It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a cavalier breaking of the fourth wall, and one that no one, it seems, bothered to think about.
The actors turn in serviceable performances – Shannon Michael Wamser as Casio being the most consistent and convincing, with Suzanna O’Donnell as Emilia turning in a solid performance in both the comedic and dramatic elements of the role. Anne Hering’s Duchess is painful (each line that rhymes receives a beat in the middle), John Keller’s Rodrigo (who is used shamelessly for myriad cheap laughs) is as funny as his character. Any woman tasked with playing a woman in a Shakespearean play takes on a Sisyphusian effort (weep…now talk for 30 lines); Lindsey Keller’s Desdemona is, well, there – neither giving to the story nor, fortunately, taking away. The rest of the cast are used as little more than props.
The leads, Martin Yurek as Iago and Esau Pritchett as Othello, simply do not bring the gravitas needed to their respective roles to give the show the breath needed to live. Yurek’s dialog sounds rather like Bob Ross talking to himself about “happy little trees”, not caring who hears him, and the actor somehow manages to squeeze a “u” sound into “Moor” (creating “M-your”).Yurek is chosen to end the first segment by throwing Desdemona’s handkerchief in the air and catching it: the look of relief as the lights dimmed and his fist clenched around the flung fabric shows the range of the character. Pritchett is more aloof and confusing – completely flat in the first three acts he does generate steam in the fourth and fifth; it feels though that Pritchett, reprising his role as Othello, has already made his choices and commits to them. When he first raises his hand and strikes Desdemona true conflict floods his face. The second time he raises the back of his hand to her there isn’t even a hint that he means it. When he raises the back of his hand to threaten Emilia, it’s in the form of a fist, making it unclear as to whether he plans to slap her or deliver some sort of spinning backfist.
This “Othello” is no different than any other one could see in dozens of regional theaters in cities across the US. Indeed, it may be on the slightly lower side of “average”: no vision, no aim, listless and without energy.
In complete contrast, Lake Howell High School’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” was a joy for a High School production, and would have been perfectly passable as adult community theater.
The stage is gorgeous: twin mammoth statues flanking on either side, well struck veils and crafted lights to switch moods, a pond at stage center for the actors to sink into; it stood in equal comparison to the set of “Othello”. Adapted by James Brendlinger (who also Directed) the script washes away much of the unnecessary, rambling monologues, combines several messengers into one (named Gallus, allowing for an interesting new story arch) several aids into one (named Eros, servant of Antony) and uses the Soothsayer to advance the story rather than pages of dialog. In a master-stroke the monologue wherein Gallus tells to Rome (staged down-stage left) of Mark Antony’s first glimpse of Cleopatra in her vessel on the Nile the main stage becomes a haunting flashback as the stage curtain opens, revealing the boat in all its splendor, Cleopatra atop surrounded by servants, oarsmen below moving in unison.
The total cast and crew numbers nearly 70. Still, Kaitlyn Harrington as Stage Manager (with only two assistants) ensured there was never a moment seen by the audience that implied haste, worry or confusion. Indeed, the only error in the show was masterfully covered: in a scene wherein Mark Antony grows increasingly angry towards Cleopatra for her “poisoning his mind,” Antony rose from Cleopatra’s bed, only to find a pillow stuck to his tasseled Roman garb. A small murmur ran through the audience. Completely in character, Antony grabbed the pillow, scolded Cleopatra with a strong “why do you even buy these?” and hurled the pillow off stage, then continued with the scene.
Likewise particularly impressive, was the fight choreography. Rather than the 4 to 5 steps and 3 to 4 thrusts of “Othello,” the audience was treated to a full minute and a half sword fight between the Captain of the Monkey Guards and the Captain of Caeser’s invading troops. The fight felt real, violent and exciting; the actors moved without trepidation- they covered the axis of the stage, using it in the fight itself. One of the better fights I’ve seen on an Orlando stage in some time.
The show was accompanied by a live band (wonderfully effective at the shows climax when the band includes vocals in their cover of Depeche Mode’s classic “Shake the Disease”, “Some people have to be, Permanently together, Lovers devoted to, Each other forever” – a link for a live taping of the song, which also shows the stage, follows; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odTTLycn7QQ). Comprised of “The Summer Januaries” (summerjanuaries.wordpress.com) and student performers, the band was led by a banjo/bass/drum combination, with gorgeous accents from cello, violin, oboe, glockenspiel and vocals.
In the midst of the actors and the monkeys, Brendlinger used a chorus of belly dancers, creating a fully immersive spectacle. At intermission the lead dancer, an elegant wisp of style and grace, took to the stage and, accompanied by the band, performed with equal parts precision, skill, intensity and ardor – effectively bridging the two acts, rather than leaving the stage cold.
The cast was, by and large, impressive for a group of high school students. Zev Halikman’s Lepidus, Jessica McPherson’s Charmian, Cody Moss’s Eros and Donald Johnston Junior’s Gallus are all played with zeal and understanding rare in young actors; and each demonstrates an impressive range without over emoting. Johnston Junior’s performance when discovered by Mark Antony kissing Cleopatra, and the ensuing whipping and beating, was especially well performed. Each- I’d levy- could, with a month of training, have filled any of the secondary roles in “Othello” without much of a notable difference. There are no genuinely terrible performances: some aren’t particularly good, but as the actors are High School students I don’t think it appropriate to name them.
Without question, though, the finest performance is that of Josh Melendez as Mark Antony. Equipped with the rare to command attention on the stage without showboating, Melendez plays Mark Antony perfectly: a near-god made mortal, a legend come laughing stock on account of his own mistakes. Malendez’s choices are neat and clean; there’s no over the top theatrics or warrantless inflection. Instead he utilizes effective beats, vocal choices and a burning intensity to not only make the audience interested in Antony, but to make the audience care about his fate. An impressive accomplishment.
There are some odd moments and mistakes in the show. A metal shield was thrown off, causing a rather loud clunk. Technical issues meant most of the mic’ed actors (the leads) delivered their first lines in a scene without amplification before the speakers sprang to life. These little quibbles, though, were easily forgiven and forgotten for one simple reason: the audience was enjoying the show.
It was sitting in the audience of “Antony and Cleopatra” that I realized the primary difference between the two shows: the reason that at the intermission of “Othello” I passed more groups of the audience talking about how much longer the show would be running than any other topic of conversation, while at the intermission of “Antony and Cleopatra,” the majority of conversation revolved around whether or not Mark Antony was being an idiot for leaving his empire to take up with Cleopatra. Passion. Those involved with the production of “Antony and Cleopatra”, from the backstage to front of house to the cast, wanted to be doing it- an attitude that bled into the audience. Those involved with “Othello” seemed bored by the entire process- an attitude of yawns that, likewise, bled into the audience.
What, then, (to crib Ardrey) do we marvel at? If we are to be known amongst the stars by our poems, to which verses are we paying service? The point I wish to raise is not, perhaps, the performances themselves, it’s equally important what performances are to come. Lake Howell High School will stage “I Love You Because”, “Anne Frank – Superstar” and “Rent”; the remainder of the Shakes signature series consists of “Sense and Sensibility” and “Titus Andronicus” (advertised with the taglines “Shakespeare’s Bloodiest Blockbuster” and “The Pulp Fiction of the Elizabethan Age”, both such stupid phrases as to make me want to slap myself in the face for having read them).
By no means am I suggesting Shakespeare doesn’t have a place in modern theater. Of course he does. Granted if any of his works were published today (minus the iambic pentameter) they would be laughed off the stage for having unbelievable characters, deux-ex-machina by the barrel-full and no sense of internal motivation. His works, though, especially the good ones, are a vital part of a person’s theatrical education, and should be seen.
For the past ten years the Signature Series at the Orlando Shakespeare Center has, though, been comprised of half Shakespearean works and half other (and the other isn’t exactly recent material – the most recent show I can remember was the staging of “The Importance of being Ernest”). Moreover, with tickets costing (for Friday and Saturday shows) between $30 and $40 and (for Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday Matinées) between $20 and $35 the Signature Series effectively prices out all those but the upper middle-class (to take a family of four to a Friday night show would cost, at the cheapest, $100 – or 12.8 hours of working for minimum wage).
As the Shakes survives on the largess of the Orange County taxpayer and, through their venue rental pricing structure, prohibits any meaningful rental of their space by independent companies (http://www.samuelbutcher.net/shakes/), they have a duty to serve as the cultural hub of the Orlando Theatrical community. It is sad to say they do. For the Shakes provides for its patrons exactly what they want; the illusion of culture without the need to work for it.
Some may say Orlando deserves better: I say Orlando is getting exactly what it is asking for. Rather than demanding plays of higher quality or wider reach the average member of the audience at the Shakes seems content to be at a show for the sake of being there – that to have said they saw the show is more important to them than the show itself. I know the Shakes isn’t about to begin staging a host of modern works, but surely there’s room for more of the “classics”; more Ibsen, more Chekhov, more Shaw, more Beckett, more O’Neil. Does anyone seriously think a staging of “Titus Adronicus” is worth more to a community than “Waiting for Godot”, or “Pygmalion”, or “The Cherry Orchard”?
Culture is not something you can buy. Being seen is not as important as seeing. Buying a ticket for a Shakespeare show doesn’t make you classy; accepting that literature has a learning curve, and working to acquire the knowledge to fill the taste, does. In a culture where too much is spoon fed the best of what we have to offer should not be so easily thrown away.
To quote from “Othello”, “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving”. We can, as a city, continue to accept sub-par work and think it betters us simply because of the name on the playbill, or we can work to see staged those pieces of man’s better angels that survive history not for their covers but for their content.
An apt summation from the introduction to “Othello”; the Orlando Shakespeare Center announced what will be the centerpiece of their next Signature Series. The play? “Nicholas Nickleby”, which will feature “30 actors playing over 100 characters in over 1,000 costume pieces across two nights”. That’s not a show, it’s a spectacle. It’s not something you engage with, it’s something you endure. But the Shakes will sell their tickets, the audience will think themselves better though they don’t understand what’s happening on stage, and far away, in a room piled high with plays of substance closed to the light of day, a bird will cry, only to be silenced by the pageantry of a parade of fools.
Oh, by and by, neither of the two Shakespeare “quotes” in the opening of this piece are actually by him. The first is from Robert Green’s “Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay”, and the second is mixed from many shows (the first line from “As You Like It”, the second from “King Richard the Third”, the third from “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, the fourth from “Measure for Measure”). Think you know Shakespeare?