It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Ritual Business

Dave Sikula writes us from New York, on Shakespeare, Broadway, and ritual.

Did you ever have something you were really looking forward to, and when it finally came, not only were your high expectations met, and wildly exceeded? Well, I had one of those afternoons.

I write this sitting in my hotel room in sunny New York (no kidding on that, either; in spite of the snow yesterday and the current temperature of 34 degrees, it’s supposed to get into the high 60s – if not 70s – this Sunday), having just returned from seeing Mark Rylance and the rest of the Globe company perform “Twelfe Night” (sic). The misspelling is part of the conceit of doing the show strictly in period. That is to say, authentically period costumes (no materials or conveniences that weren’t available in the 17th century – including [or not including, to be more accurate] zippers or Velcro; it’s all hand-stitched materials held together with buttons, straps, or ties); authentic period musical instruments (according to the program notes, these are the first shows in Broadway history to use authentic period instruments); no “artificial” stage lighting (they do use a general stage wash of lights, but there are no apparent cues from the time the audience arrives until they leave*, and real beeswax candles – which kept dripping onto the stage during the performance; I thought it was amazing nothing hit the actors); audience members in on-stage boxes; and men (or boys) playing all the roles.

I had heard that the pre-show was worth watching, and indeed it is. The actors (or most of them) are all over the stage before the show, being helped into their costumes (which seems no mean feat, given their complicated nature), talking to people in the front or in the boxes, warming up (Rylance was doing something that involved shaking his hands and moving his arms around – all while his dresser was adjusting his gown and undergarments [he plays Olivia in “Twelfe Night” and the title role in “Richard III”]), and generally being themselves. (In the evening performance, Angus Wright, who doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the Earl of Buckingham, was talking to a couple in front of me about the inscription on his garter.) As far as I could tell, there was no pretense at them acting in character as 17th century actors (thank the gods), but were just being themselves, squeezing themselves into these clothes.

A few minutes before curtain – precisely at 2:00**, I was delighted to note – some costumed stagehands came out, and the candelabra chandeliers were lowered. The stagehands went to an upstage candelabrum at lit tapers which were used to light the other candelabra, which were flown back up once everything had been ignited.

I was sure how the performance would actually start. I imagined they might pound the stage to get our attention (which was concentrated on the stage, anyway). Even though that’s a French thing, I thought it might feel “period.” I even wondered if they’d “fire” a cannon, as they did in ye olde days of Ye Globe. But no, the houselights dimmed and they just started***. (Side note #1: In all of the three shows I’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been either one “shut off your cell phone” announcement [though there is a great running gag about it in the marvelously entertaining “Murder for Two”] – and I’ve only heard one ringing vaguely. Have audiences finally been trained?****)

In the middle of experiencing the whole thing, I was struck with how ritualistic it all was. This goes along with my column from last time. Not only have all these people agreed to meet in the same place at the same time, but in this case, the ritual was really driven home. We all had jobs to do this afternoon. The audience was there to listen and react – and, in some cases, to participate. The dressers were there to help the illusion. The stagehands were there to light the candles. The actors were there to tell the story.

But there was something almost ceremonial about it. Konstantin Treplyev in “The Sea Gull” disparages the theatre his mother performs in by saying “these High Priests of Sacred Art represent the way people are supposed to eat, drink, love, walk; wear their jackets.” But in this case, it really did feel like we were a congregation watching priests don their vestments, light the candles, and deliver a prepared text that would entertain us and illuminate what it means to be human in the 1600s. (That the message is still relevant in the 2000s is both a tribute to Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology and that that psychology hasn’t really changed much in 400 years.) All in all, the afternoon was electrifying; funny, melancholy, and human.

I have to leave in a few minutes for “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third” (I don’t want to miss the next robing ceremonies), and am looking forward to it greatly. I’ll have more thoughts about all of it when I return in a few hours.

Just back – well, just back after a late night supper – and it “Richard” was just as good as “Twelfe Night.”

The thing I meant to mention earlier (and forgot) was the presentational nature of the day. That, as part of the story-telling ritual – and Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – there was no doubt that the plays were being presented for the benefit, and participation, of the audience. Rylance’s Richard was an interesting approach to the character. Giggly, almost seeming stupid (though ruthlessly intelligent underneath), and really seeking the approval of the audience in everything. For example, there were a lot of entrances and exits through the audience, up and down stairs at the downstage corners of the playing area, and Richard/Rylance came down the stairs, and without breaking stride, shook the hand of the guy next to me (it went unnoticed by virtually everyone, I’m sure) in a classic politician’s move. The actors in both plays interacted with the audience members in the onstage boxes, and in the scene (Act III, scene vii) where Richard appears with two clergymen in order to seem pious to the crowd, his henchmen made sure – through gestures and expressions that were simultaneously cheerleaderish and threatening – that all the audience shouted, “Long live Richard! England’s worthy king!” Something remarkable about Rylance is that he has the amazing knack of seeming to pull blank verse out of the air. That is to say, to seem to discover the speech even as he’s saying it; adding pauses and non-verbal interjections that make it all seem spontaneous. It really is a pair of marvelous performances; fully rounded and invested, completely different, but wholly original.

At the end of “Richard,” I joined in the standing ovation, not so much to honor the emotional values of the play – even though it was probably the clearest and most entertaining “Richard III” that I’ve seen and certainly the funniest overall “Twelfth Night,” it was not the best Shakespeare (though it’s way, way up there) – but to honor the effort and accomplishment; the thought and care that’s gone into the whole thing. It’s a huge undertaking and I felt it deserved the kudos. (Side note #2: Just for the record, as much as I loved both “Murder for Two” and “The Glass Menagerie” earlier in the week, I didn’t stand for either of those. In the latter, I was conspicuous by my remaining seated.) (Side note #3: As much as I enjoyed the “Twelfth Night,” I was constantly reminded of Benjamin Stewart, one of the best actors I ever worked with and who passed away earlier this year. His Lord Capulet is the gold standard, and his Toby Belch was phenomenal. I never saw him give less than a stellar performance.)

To return to my theme, though, I was more aware of the ritualistic aspects of the performance tonight – if only because a) I had just written the first part of this post, and b) I was looking for it. It was a bit of a paradigm shift for me; to really be aware of what we all agree to do when we participate in a play (in whatever role; audience, actor, writer, director, designer, technician). We all have assigned roles and parts to play in the process, and from here on in, I’m going to be much more aware of the part I’m fulfilling in the ritual.

(*There were at least a couple of light cues in “Richard;” it was noticeable in the evening scenes before the Battle of Bosworth Field when it grew dark, reflecting both the time of day and Richard’s mood.)

(**The evening performance also started precisely on time; at 8:00.)

(***There was a trumpet blare in “Richard” that started things off.)

(****I had my cell phone out during Intermission, and just before the second act started, an usher came by and told me to shut it off, so I guess they’ve gotten much better at policing these things.)

Working Title: The Interpretation of the Time or So Our Virtues Lie

Will Leschber discusses the merits of Shakespeare set in modern times.

It’s been near 400 years since William Shakespeare passed from this world and his works are in more supply than ever before. His reach is positively exhaustive: from home book shelves to the auditorium halls of high school onward to local community and professional theatre to the big screens of plentiful major motion picture adaptations and even globally to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 two-year tour that aims to take Hamlet to every country in the world. The influence spans to the far ends. Why does the Bard timelessly ring true after all the years come and gone? Any ordinary English teacher will tell you that the unearthed truths of the human experience are mined nowhere more deep than in Shakespeare. Hence, we still relate. We still need to see our tragic heroes die, for in their deaths we see the folly in ourselves. My question then is this: How much relevance does a contemporary setting lend to a Shakespeare adaptation?

Impact Theatre’s current production ofTroilus and Cressida sets their scene in modern war. Traditionally, the play takes place at the end of the Trojan war, but this production clads the heroes of history in American war garb reminiscent of Desert Storm and Vietnam.

Troilus_image_1

The setting is familiar and our characters look like young friends or acquaintances we’ve known who have gone to fight for their country. Is this enough reason for the setting change? For some, yes. More importantly though, does the change of setting bring us closer to the plight of our ever-true Troilus and kind-eyed Cressida ? Does the play resonate more because of the setting switch? In this case, the production would have played just as well in a classic setting. The Middle Eastern conflict connection didn’t detract from the themes built into the play but didn’t necessarily enhance either. One thing this conveys is that wars throughout time are alike. Our emotional maneuverings can play against any wartime backdrop. We must then ask, when it comes to stage adaptations does it matter since the human drama at the heart of the play is the same? Of course it does. Resetting a play is a tool for creation and that tool can be used adequately or excellently just like any other aspect of theatre creation.

Adapting Shakespeare can be a feat regardless of the medium. Academy Award nominated actor Ralph Fiennes made his film directorial debut with 2011’s modern retelling of Coriolanus. Coriolanus shares a number of themes with Troilus and Cressida (pride, hubris, vanity, arrogance, strength, submission) and both are set in times of war. But again I ask, is a modern adaptation about more than a setting shift? With this film at least, the answer is yes.

Coriolanus_image_#1-1

That being said Shakespearean film adaptation can be tricky. When modernizing a play 400 year old play, does one simply trim the length and let the scenes play long relying on the actors to carry the pace and weight of the scenes? Or does one trim and split the scenes to lay on top one another, supporting each other thematically and then allowing editing or camera work to create flow and pace. The answer is a creative choice and can go either way. In this case, Fiennes adapts Coriolanus as if it were conceived as a film to begin with. This is the way to go with any film adaptation. Film had its own rules and expectations. Often when audiences are watching a film adaptation of a play they want exactly that: a film. Not a filmed stage play… which has it’s own place and purpose. However, the best adaptations use the tools unique to the medium to enhance the story in a way that the stage cannot. Realistic locations, wartime scenarios played out in full desolation, a close-up that allows an intimate soliloquy to be whispered: Fiennes utilizes these tools while relying on the language to carry the narrative.

Where this adaptation shines the most is how Fiennes draws a parallel between modern news agencies/social media and their connection to the tenants of public rule within Ancient Rome. Coriolanus, who serves as such a perfect wartime weapon, is of little value in times of peace. His pride and arrogance call for scorn.

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows!

Coriolanus, Act III, scene iii

His cursing lines here remind me of contemporary feeble rumors of facebook and overbearing media that fans our emotions. The times are similar and people will not put up with being called out on their ignorance! The voice of the people calls for banishment! Have we not seen public out cry fueled by media and social networking call for the downfall of a public figure? Do we not see soldiers return to an unwelcoming home country after their service? We see these things today as we saw them in the 60’s and as Shakespeare saw them four centuries ago.

When banished, Coriolanus is shown wandering through ravaged neighborhoods reminiscent of war torn Eastern Europe. On a small, trash-littered peninsula he sits. The upward reaching bare trees reflect in the still waters below him as if he were the middle of a world upturned. In the separate war worlds of Troilus and Coriolanus, tides turn in spite of what is right. Love and honor shift on the voiceless winds and settle uncertainly down in the ashes of war. Any generation who has known war knows the uncertain world that these Shakespearean characters inhabit. Both are relevant because of the human truth built within. However, the superior adaptation is one that ties modern aspects not present when the play was written to the human truths that were always there.

Troilus and Cressida plays at Impact Theatre until Dec. 15th. Coriolanus is available on Netflix and many other digital rental sites.

Photo Credits:

Isaacs, Cheshire. Consoled by his brother Paris. 2013. http://www.impacttheatre.com/press/Web. 3 Dec 2013.

Coriolanus. 2013. http://www.imdb.comWeb. 3 Dec 2013.

Cowan Palace: Bombs, Dog Food, and Audition Woes

Ashley Cowan dramaturgs her own audition process. 

On Monday night I bombed an audition. And no, I’m not being hard on myself. I was really terrible. I got up, introduced myself, and a few words into my first monologue I just blanked. It was the worst. Especially because it was a piece from my homeboy, Willy Shakes! The same fella I’ve been writing about these past few weeks in honor of Taming of the Shrew. But while those guys were honoring the language, I was destroying it.

Maybe you’ve been there. You have those lines down cold a moment before you step into the audition room; you’ve literally run it twenty times that day without freezing up and then boom. And you wail, “why oh why, did it all leave my brain the second I actually needed it?”

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the evening curled up into a ball and soaking my pillow with defeated tears. I was heartbroken.

Lately, I feel like auditions haven’t been coming around as often as I’d like and here I go and ruin the one chance I have. I’m being dramatic, yes. But that’s the business, baby, haven’t you been watching Smash? Bad TV aside, auditions are hard. You learn to make a business out of rejection. I’ve been told I’m too big, too small, too tall, too similar to Rose McGowan – you get the point, but it’s supposed to be my job to do whatever I can to try and land the part, right? And when you suck at it, you can’t help but feel like you suck at life.

On Tuesday, I woke up in a sleepy haze and tried to get ready as usual. I noticed that the dog food jar was sitting open on the floor with its top lying next to it. I found that to be strange but since it was 7am, I decided not to care and put the cap back on and continued hurriedly getting ready. As I was packing my things, I noticed our cat was pawing at the jar and biting it with her small teeth. She was slowly working the lid off the jar so she could sneak her paw in and scoop out a piece of kibble. The scene made me literally LOL. After four years of living with a cat who loves to eat dog food, this was the first time I had seen her actually go after what she wanted in a new way. Usually she just sits by it and meows. But suddenly she changed her ways. And as silly as it sounds, it made me feel better. It seemed to say that there are other ways to go after the things you love and want. You’re not destined to fail the same way each time if you attempt a new route.

So tonight, I decided to get back out there. I had another audition. Same two monologues as Monday’s bombfest. Plus a song. All day I felt torn between wanting to cancel so I wouldn’t have to worry about further murdering my  dreams  and desperately wanting to redeem myself. In typical dramatic fashion, I put a lot of pressure on what would ultimately only last about three minutes of my life.

After helping me run my pieces again a few times, my cheerleader (best) boyfriend (ever) kindly drove me to the audition and made me yell “I’m the man” (ala Beasts of the Southern Wild) a few times before heading upstairs. And while my stomach may have given a home to every butterfly in town before I uttered a word, I got the lines out this time. Which, after my devastating Monday night, was a huge victory. And I had a great time. While I’ll never really enjoy the pressure of showcasing acting talent in the form of one minute monologues, I do love every opportunity I get to become a different person for a moment and act. It’s a gift. So perhaps, I’ll attempt to make that my new route. Or at least I’ll keep at it. Because even if that cat never gets into the dog food, she’s never going to stop trying. And I just can’t live with a cat fighting harder to chase her dreams than me.

And if you want to see talented folks not destroy Shakespeare – make sure to check out  Taming of The Shrew playing at Café Royale Monday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 26 at 8pm!

Cowan Palace: Quick and Dirty Tips to Surviving The Taming of the Shrew

This week, Ashley Cowan offers a few thoughts and facts regarding The Taming of the Shrew to get you ready for March 18’s Opening Night at Cafe Royale. 

Now, I’m sure most of you out there are Shakespeare fans. Or at least, that’s what you tell your friends. But just in case he makes you a little nervous, here are a few basic points to help ease you into to The Taming of the Shrew

First, what the heck is a shrew?

Well, according to the dictionary a “shrew” is a mouselike mammal with beady eyes and a long pointed snout. Its second definition simply explains a shrew as “a bad-tempered or aggressively assertive woman”.  And while I do think Stuart should have considered casting an array of small creatures, in this case, the tamed shrew describes Katherina.

Katherina? What an exotic name! Where does this play take place?

In the Italian city of Padua. 

Ah, and when was it written?

There are a few opinions on the year but most seem to believe it was in 1592.

16th-century Italian comedy was a thing, right? Did that impact the play?

Well, reader, great observation.  There does seem to be some evidence within The Taming of the Shrew that reflects some of the style of Commedia dell’Arte. For example, the combination of some melodrama moments and slapstick humor executed by a colorful collection of characters. 

That sounds fun.

It is!

Has The Taming of the Shrew ever been made into a movie?

It has. An impressive fourteen different films have been created; including one with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It also helped to inspire the enchanting musical, Kiss Me Kate, and the ever popular teen classic flick, 10 Things I Hate About You

So how does this story start?

Once upon a time there were two sisters: Katherina and Bianca (spoiler alert: one of them is a shrew) who lived with their father, Baptista. Bianca was considered a hot piece and managed to attract herself three suitors but Dad refused to take any of them seriously until his other single daughter, who had a reputation for being harsh and unfriendly, found a beau of her own.  

Theater Pub has taken a slightly different route and has cast Baptista as a woman. And since mother often knows best, this should be a fun interpretation of controlling parenting presented with a feminine approach and two daughters working what their mama gave them. 

Does Katherina find someone?

Does she! After a few questionable OKCupid dates, Petruchio leaves Verona and comes into town in search of fame, fortune, and perhaps some female companionship.  And when he meets Kate, he’s not afraid of her or her reputation. 

So?

So? People love this stuff. It’s the whole “battle of the sexes” thing. We get to explore the relationship of two strong competitors who both embody elements of their sex and the fire to remain in control. 

Would you say it’s a romantic comedy?

I guess you could say that. But the play certainly opens the door to larger social issues regarding the institution of marriage and the exploration of the roles within them. 

Does the shrew ever get tamed? 

That’s something we can talk about over a beer.  Partially because it can be a fun discussion and partially because I’m thirsty. 

At the beginning the play, so much of what we, the audience, know about Kate is told to us by the other characters. They all seem to be on a mission to teach us about her incorrigible ways. But as the story progresses, we start to get an idea of what may be influencing her behavior and her response to her sister being favored by her father (or in this production, her mother). 

Now, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I’m a bit of a romantic. I’ve been through many heated discussions about this play and listened to the backlash of several spirited thinkers who find the piece to be sexist and degrading. And to them, I say – maybe grab a drink and relax for a moment. I personally believe it’s a story about people learning from each other, exploring their fears, and ultimately transforming by approaching life in a new way. The play can be farcical but it’s also richer and more developed than that too. 

Yeah, but what’s up with Kate’s speech at the end? 

It depends how you direct it and interpret it but I believe it’s a representation of Kate’s dynamic spirit evolving into a more mature state. She seems to be accepting that she’s in a partnership and perhaps with that, she understands that power can exist together. When one succeeds, the other benefits.

Okay. Why should I see Theater Pub take this play on?

Well, what else are you doing? 

Come see it. There’s nothing like watching Shakespeare’s words come to life surrounded by bar patrons and theater lovers alike. This production is sure to entertain and challenge us, make us reconsider the strengths and weaknesses of relationships, and delight us with a cast of talented Bay Area actors. Image

Plus, I’ll be there. And I’d love to see you. 

 

Cowan Palace: 7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs In A Bar

As we move closer to Theater Pub’s next production of Taming of the a Shrew, I thought it would be fun to get the party started by learning just a little bit more about one of history’s favorite writers. So to kick things off, here are Ashley Cowan’s top 7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs in a Bar!

7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs in a Bar

1.) He puts the “bar” in “Bard”.

2.) We don’t really know how to spell his name.

Just like a drunk Marina brah who writes his number down for a tipsy sorority sister, the mighty Bard also abbreviated his own name and signature. Apparently, there were about 80 different ways Shakespeare’s name was written out during his lifetime – and that’s only counting the cocktail napkins that survived! Some include whacky interpretations like “Shaxberd”! For that one alone, we should all take a drink.

3.) Shakespeare’s daddy was paid to drink beer!

That John Shakespeare tried out a few careers in his day but in 1556 he became a professional drinker. He was an ale taster responsible for reviewing bread and malt liquors. Cheers, John!

4.) Taming of the Shrew begins with a drunk dude!

Before the first act officially begins (in the Induction), a rather sloppy Christopher Sly is kicked out of a bar. He is then becomes the target for a sneaky nobleman who tricks Sly into believing that he too is of notable nobility. Bestowing upon him the honor of a play and officially beginning 10 Things I Hate About You.

5.) Shakespeare put a curse on his grave!

Okay, this may not directly correlate to Shakespeare being performed in a bar but it’s bad-ass! It’s believed that he wrote the epitaph reading: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Now, if only he had written something for Richard III…

6.) An anagram for “William Shakespeare” is “A Karma Wheelie Lisps”.

That clearly was made for a bar. Or you could go with the more well-known anagram: “I am a weakfish speller” but how can you resist celebrating when a karma wheelie lisps?

7.) He wrote about beer!

My three text favorites include:

“I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”Henry V

I will make it a felony to drink small beer.”Henry VI, Part II

“OLIVIA: What’s a drunken man like, fool?
CLOWN: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him.”
– Twelfth Night

Taming of the Shrew opens on March 18 and also plays March 19, 25, and 27 at Cafe Royale. Which gives us plenty of time to add to our list of why Shakespeare belongs in a bar. Part beautiful language, part beer, the production is sure to be worth toasting to!

Day of Play!

Actress and Theater Pub Artistic Director, Julia Heitner, talks about what it’s been like to bring Measure For Measure from the page, to the stage.

After 3 ½ weeks with just a few rehearsals per week, we’ll be performing an 80-min version of Measure for Measure starting tonight!

Will Hand rehearses like a champ.

I am playing Isabella, a novice about to enter a nunnery, who gets pulled into the plot when her brother Claudio (played by Vince Rodriguez) is condemned to die for knocking up her homegirl, Julietta, and so she has to go save his ass. I love Isabella’s fierceness, eloquence, and that her particular character flaw is never being able to hold her tongue. I also relate to her being a sort of outsider in the play, left to fight her own battles, always speaking her mind (no matter what the consequences, and oh- the consequences!), and clinging to an outdated moral code in a modern world. Plus, I get to say things like,

Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd:
‘Tis best thou diest quickly.

I am excited and extremely nervous to be performing in this role and intimidated to be in the company of such talented and hilarious actors.

Linda Ruth Cardozo, Tony Cirimele and Neil Higgins intimidate Julia, just for fun.

We’ve been working hard, stress is high and after our tech/dress at Cafe Royale on Saturday, Sunday was our day of play.

Kirsten Broadbear and Tony Cirimele sure do love to play!

It was an unexpectedly sunny and beautiful day in downtown San Francisco, so we took over a space near the Children’s Creativity Carousel in Yerba Buena and started a line through, which quickly turned into an innovative outdoor run-through, turning the area into our stage/playground. Most everyone wore sunglasses, which enhanced the severity of our Provost (Tony Cirimele) and Aeschylus (Carl Lucania) and added to the devilishness of Lucio (Neil Higgins) and Angelo (Nick Dickson). I tossed a shawl over my head to serve as a makeshift nun’s habit and we were off!

As usual, Carl Lucania is asking God why he continues to put up with our nonsense.

A few passersby gathered to watch us circle around a metal globe structure, scurry up and down stairways to the raised walkway above, and, of course, spout the beautiful and hilarious words of Shakespeare. In the final scene, as I let rip at Angelo and called him names, I felt a pang of shame when I screamed out that he was a “virgin violator” while groups of parents and their children wandered past.

Passersby were even more baffled by Will Hand and Tony Cirimele talking about beheading people.

Favorite moments of the run-through include, the moment when Mistress Overdone (Linda Ruth Cardozo), no longer restrained by a tiny rehearsal venue, made a run for it when she was about to be arrested, forcing Escalus and the Provost to chase her down. Marianna (Kirsten Broadbear) put on some extra fabulous attitude as she revealed herself to Angelo during the play’s climactic face-off, and The Duke and Lucio engaged in an imaginary sunglasses-nose-pushing-clown-off.

I turned to Stuart in the middle of the final scene and said, “It’s a comedy!” and he sardonically replied, “FINALLY!”

Linda-Ruth waves while Stuart Bousel passes judgement.

We can now take this show anywhere. All our costumes fit into one trunk. All the actors could squeeze into two cars.  We’ll need this flexibility when we hit up The Plough and Stars on August 22nd, when we have to dive into a space entirely different from Cafe Royale with no rehearsal time.

The Duke Vincentio Curse: when comforting someone just makes them cry harder.

Want to book us for your birthday party? We’re also available for Bachelorette parties! Your BART ride home? You’ll love it, I promise.

Don’t miss the show, August 14, 20, 21 and 27 at the Cafe Royale, and August 22 and Plough and Stars! Showtime is 8 PM, so get there early! Admission is Free!

From Tripple L to M4M: Stuart Bousel Talks About His Life With The Bard

In preparation for our next production, a scaled down version of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure opening on Tuesday, August 14th, director Stuart Bousel talks about his previous tangles with the world’s most famous dead white male.  

Like many directors, I have a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare.

I love him in that he’s an amazing writer who has left us almost forty plays, many of which are masterpieces and all of which are eminently performable, and because these plays are the magical combination of incredibly universal and public domain, his work is a sort of lyrical playground for any director looking to put on a production where he or she can flaunt their innovative choices while still taking advantage of a several centuries long pedigree. Of course, there in lies the problem: these plays have been around for so long and are so well known that it’s somewhat impossible to just put them on as plays, and when you do so, inevitably, half your audience comes in with expectations that can have little to nothing to do with your production.

The first Shakespeare play I ever directed was his lesser-appreciated romantic comedy, Love’s Labors Lost, or as I like to call it, Tripple L, a play I adore, in part because it’s one of the rare, truly “original” plays Shakespeare wrote (most of them come from historical or mythological sources), and also because there’s something youthful and charming about it that makes me think it was, for Shakespeare, what SubUrbia was for Eric Bogosian or This Is Our Youth was for Kenneth Lonergan: that charming, quasi-autobiographical play you write about being good looking, reckless and having nothing to do but get wasted, flirt and act like you know everything about the world. Hence, when I directed my production in 2006, I re-set the show in a modern San Francisco nightclub, scored it with pop-music and costumed it with trendy clothes and an eye towards contemporary realism, making it about the people I knew. At the time, I figured this would be my one and only Shakespeare foray.

The trouble is, Shakespeare is sort of an addiction, and once you find your gateway play, it’s hard not to be tempted to do another one. And then another one. I did Hamlet next because, well, why the hell not, right? And that’s when I first figured out (as many people do on their first production of Hamlet) that there are some shows you do knowing virtually everyone who sees it is going to have “their version” in mind and that in their head it’s going to be superior to whatever you do. Which means you might as well go hog wild and that’s what I did, setting the show in modern times, once again, having actresses play the men and actors play the women and a terrifying seven foot tall ghost in what could best be described as Japanese horror flick drag. To date, it’s actually one of my favorite shows I’ve directed, being almost entirely wrapped in my own particular brand of experimentalism and cloaked in Bousel-ian touches: abrupt acts of violence, monochromatic color schemes, romantic suicides, homo-erotic undertones and surprise redemptions.

My next two Shakespeare productions were A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, both for Atmostheatre’s Theater in The Woods, an annual summer production staged in a Redwood preserve near Woodside, California. Both shows were exercises in charm and period theater, the first staged as a Regency era bittersweet romantic comedy, the second a more experimental foray into tragicomedy set in the early 18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of the two, I personally think Midsummer was the more successful (you really just can’t beat setting that play in an actual forest) but on some level it’s virtually impossible to mess up that show unless you really try (and that said, I’ve seen it happen) and the fact is I learned more from Twelfth Night, which was a reminder that directors should play with these classics but never lose site of the story they are telling and what that story’s emotional core is for them.

Which set me up for directing Merchant of Venice, a production that, as of this writing, is still playing at the Gough Street Playhouse (home of the Custom Made Theater Company), having just been extended for another two weeks. In some ways a return to form for me, my Merchant is a sprawling commentary about the world of modern business and how its various social dramas of status and exploitation are played out in nightclubs and bars, break rooms and boardrooms. There is a light motif of pop music, drug and alcohol abuse, and retro fashion, setting the play in the 1960’s, 1980’s and contemporary world all at the same time, while preserving many of the antiquities of the text and finding numerous sight gags in the use of current day technology. To me, it’s the best Shakespeare I’ve done yet, using narrative to study the contrasts and comparisons between a time and society we think of as so removed from our own- and yet with which I think we have a lot in common. A lot we probably aren’t terribly proud of.

For the Pub’s Measure for Measure, however, I may be foraying back into the realm of charming, albeit this time with more edge than previously, as Measure packs a dirtier, nastier punch than Midsummer or Twelfth Night. Last year I had the honor of adapting Henry IV and V into The Boar’s Head, in which I also had the honor of playing Ned Poins. Something I loved about the show, directed by Jessica Richards, was how we moved throughout the Bar, which was transformed, through the text alone, into the Boar’s Head tavern from the plays, with only two moments of stepping away from that infamous East cheap locale so that Henry IV could bemoan his vanishing son and later die of unknown causes on the pool table. This time around I knew we shouldn’t do another show set in a pub. There are only so many times that could happen, even in Shakespeare’s vast canon, and the sooner we set a precedent that there were no precedents, the better it would be in the long run if, as it seems we intend to, there was to be an annual Shakespeare play at the Pub. When Measure for Measure was first suggested it seemed like an excellent fit because it would, like all Shakespeare plays, defy expectations even as it created them. Plus, it was an unusual choice, a play not frequently done or particularly well known, and so liberating myself and the cast to do with it what we would. Ironically, it’s going to be the first Shakespeare play I have ever directed that will be costumed in 16th century clothes, but the traditional take ends there.

Something I have discovered while putting together an 80 minute version of this show (that I now affectionately refer to as M4M) is that I’d actually love to do a full production sometime. We cut a lot of material and characters to make this play flow as smoothly and slickly as possible in the bar, and some of that is stuff I’d really like a chance to play with. But I’m also now completely hooked and going through a love phase with Shakespeare, so it may be a while before I allow myself the luxury of directing a second production of any of the shows I’ve done so far, when there are so many left I’d like to sink my teeth into.

In the back of my head, I’ve been considering both King John and Henry VIII for quite some time, and recently it was put into my head by a producer friend of mine to consider Romeo and Juliet. The pre-production phase for a production of The Tempest has been going on for about three years now and some part of me is always fantasizing about Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline. I have no real desire to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona or Much Ado About Nothing and yet if offered the chance, I wouldn’t turn them down because I see how both could be lovely shows and I have ideas. Which is the problem. I have ideas for all the shows. So do most directors.

And once you open that door for us, it can be a really difficult one to close. 

Don’t miss Theater Pub’s Measure for Measure, playing four nights at the Cafe Royale (August 14, 20, 21, 27) and one night at the Plough And Stars (August 22), always at 8 PM, always for free.