Archive for the 'Measure for Measure' Category

Theatre: Measure for Measure (TFANA)

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the production of Measure for Measure at the Polonsky Center in Brooklyn, performed by Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA). It was a good production; I would even say very good. It didn’t come close to the two other productions I saw in the same space: Pericles and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But that’s an unfairly high bar to set, so let’s just say it was very good. The acting was strong across the board and the play was well communicated. There were some creative choices made with the text, and it was very entertaining to watch from beginning to end. They didn’t seem affected much by the recent controversy of a Trump-like Caesar at the Public Theatre. The Duke was a dead ringer for Justin Trudeau and Angelo was channeling Richard Nixon, and yet I saw no protesters from Canada or the 1970’s.

The director wanted to create an immersive experience for the audience, and to that end, we were brought into the theatre through a “brothel” that was set up on the ground floor. Mistress Overdone greeted me with a sultry “Hello Papi, welcome back. It’s good to see you again.” We walked past displays of adult toys and various rooms where implied sex acts were being performed behind plexiglass walls. It was gimmicky, sure, but I liked it. It made me feel like I was complicit in the decline of Vienna at the start of the play; I had just come from a brothel, after all.

My main complaint was that the production was a little too cute. It relied too much on jokey gags where the play itself could have sustained the comedy in a much more compelling way. Not always, but too often. In fact, the best scenes in this production were the ones that featured two actors alone on a bare stage communicating with each other using the emotion from the text. These scenes were truly explosive, and were actually the immersive experience the director wanted. “Trust the text” is a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it works. And it worked here. I’d have liked more of it.

Also, there’s an actor’s trick where you take one of Shakespeare’s more poetic turns of phrases and pause just before it, delivering the expression as though it were a polite euphemism for what you were really about to say. It’s usually good for a laugh, and I like the trope. But as one can desire too much of a good thing, this production used the device again and again and again. It’s just too cute.

I had a directing professor in grad school who was fond of the expression “Strong, but wrong.” I always appreciated the way it turned a criticism into a praise, and there were several aspects of this production where I would bestow such a praise.

One key example was the choice to show the Duke shooting up heroin at the beginning of the play. Here’s why that’s strong: The Duke is motivated by the fact that he is responsible for allowing vice to spread unchecked throughout Vienna. Having him actually be part of the debauchery makes him all the more driven to correct the fault. Here’s why it’s wrong: the play only works if the Duke has the moral authority to skulk around incognito, pulling secret strings and passing judgment “like power divine.” And I suspect that, for this production, that’s a feature and not a bug, but you have to admit that it does undermine to some extent the Duke’s comic scenes with Lucio. How can he be indignant about being called a drunk when he’s actually a junkie?

I’ve lived in New York City for the past twenty-five years, so I’ve become accustomed to “color-blind” casting. But in the shadow of recent events, not the least of which is the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile, color has become an increasingly harder thing to be blind to. In this production, Angelo was played by a white man, while Isabella and Claudio were black. I don’t know if the choice was deliberate, but it highlighted the entitlement Angelo feels in having control over each of their bodies. When Isabella asks “To whom should I complain?,” we could not understand her more clearly. When a man wrongs you, you can appeal to the system. When the system wrongs you, what recourse do you have?

Cara Rickets was a fantastic Isabella, bringing a lot of personality and humor to a character that often lacks both. Johnathan Cake (Duke), Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo), and Leland Fowler (Claudio) helped her carry the production with strong characterizations and solid performances. But the real standouts of this production were the bit players, particularly those who doubled and tripled up. January LaVoy as the strait-laced Escala (a female Escalus) was completely unrecognizable from the Mistress Overdone who had flirted with me when I arrived. Kenneth De Abrew was always engaging to watch, whether he was playing Froth, Abhorson, or Friar Peter. And Zachary Fine absolutely stole the show – I mean, just absolutely stole it – as Elbow. Then, he did it again as Barnardine.

Measure for Measure runs through July 16.

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

How far should we go to get people to read Shakespeare? I say we do whatever it takes.

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My teenage daughter and her friends think that posts like this can’t go viral. Please help me teach them an important lesson by sharing this on Facebook and Twitter.

Shakespeare Song Parody: We Love the Plays of Shakespeare

Friday, June 28th, 2013

This is the last in a series of 40 pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

So far, we’ve had one parody for each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays and one for the sonnets. We finish the Shakespeare Top 40 with a tribute to all of the plays, one last time.

Enjoy!

We Love the Plays of Shakespeare
sung to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel

(With appreciation to everyone who has followed along on the journey…)

Harry, Suffolk, Somerset,
Richard Plantagenet;
Warwick, Edward, Margaret, Rutland,
Younger Lord Clifford;
Lord John Talbot, Tony Woodeville,
Duke of Bedford, Joan La Pucelle;
Duke of Clarence, Tower Princes,
Richard the Third…

Antipholus, Dromio,
Balthazar, Angelo;
Titus gets Tamora by
Baking her kids in a pie;
Tranio, Petruchio,
Katharina, Widow;
Proteus and Valentine have
Bid Verona goodbye…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Don Armado, French Princess,
Costard and Holofernes;
Romeo’s Apothecary,
Juliet’s Nurse;
Gaunt John, he passed on,
Henry’s back and Dick’s gone;
Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug,
Bottom’s got a curse…

King John, Pope, France,
Bastard’s got a second chance;
Shylock and Antonio,
Portia and Bassanio;
Bardolph, Boar’s Head,
Prince Hal, Hotspur dead;
Tavern Hostess, Lord Chief Justice,
Henry on his deathbed…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Benedick, Beatrice,
Dogberry and Verges;
Cambridge, Scroop and Grey,
Fight on St. Crispin’s Day;
Cassius, Cicero,
Julius Caesar, Cato;
Duke Senior, Jacques,
Poems posted on the trees…

O, O, O…

Olivia, Antonio,
Toby Belch, Malvolio;
Ophelia, Claudius,
Hamlet kills Polonius;
Falstaff once adored
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford;
Agamemnon, Pandarus,
Cressida and Troilus…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Helena for Bertram fell,
All’s Well that Ends Well;
Angelo, Claudio,
“Friar” Duke Vincentio;
Desdemona, Othello,
Duke, Iago, Cassio;
Kent’s stand, Lear’s Fool,
Edmund’s death, Edgar’s rule;
Three Witches, two Macbeths,
Scottish spirits come unsex;
Antony, Cleo P.,
Who else would you want to see?

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Marcius, Cominius,
Volumnia, Aufidius;
Cupid, Lucius,
Timon, Flavius;
Gower, Thaliard, Pericles,
Antiochus, Simonides;
Posthumous is shipped to Rome,
Iachimo’s gone to his home…

Autolycus, Leontes,
Perdita, Polixenes;
Stephano, Trinculo,
Ship, wreck, Prospero;
Henry starts a second life,
Anne Boleyn’s his second wife;
Kinsmen our guy partnered for;
May have helped with Thomas More…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
And where we have gone,
The play will start anon,
Anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

We love the plays of Shakespeare!

Hat tip to Shakespeare Online for the chronology.

You can click to read all 40 song parodies here.

Shakespeare Anagram: Measure for Measure

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

From Measure for Measure:

Hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Push Obama, he now feels huge secret sweeper plans were heroic.

Shakespeare Anagram: Measure for Measure

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

From Measure for Measure:

Pray you, my lord, give me leave to question; you
shall see how I’ll handle her.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Oh my! Senator Paul’s soliloquy whine? He moved level-eyed Hillary to argue.

Shakespeare Song Parody: Boyfriend

Friday, August 17th, 2012

This is the third of a series of Shakespeare Song Parodies.

The idea is to take a popular song and change the words so that it’s about Shakespeare. Enjoy!

Boyfriend
sung to the tune of “Boyfriend”

(With apologies to Justin Bieber and to all that is good and right in the universe…)

You’ve come to plead before me,
To let your brother go.
Ask me not for mercy,
‘Cause my blood is made of snow.

Your brother broke the law,
As his girlfriend starts to show,
Which is punishable by death,
As you must surely know.

(Shag, Shag, Shag) You do.
There’s nothing in this case that would merit review.
But if you could save his life, exactly how much would you do?
So say hello to false fellow in three, two…

(Shag)

Feel free to tell anyone you want.
Hey girl, who’d believe it’s true?

If I was your boyfriend, I’d let your brother go.
Torture him to death, girl, if you tell me No.
He won’t have to die, though, if you give me love.
If I was your boyfriend, I’d let your brother go.
I’d let your brother go.

I hear that you’ve been studying.
You want to be a nun.
But you haven’t been invested yet.
We could have some fun.

Your virtue gets me going.
No strumpet ever could.
Do I desire you foully,
For that which makes you good?

You fear for your salvation,
As that’s your only goal.
But just yield me up your body;
I talk not of your soul.

If I say you must do it,
Well then, of course, you must.
Just close your eyes and think about
How the law is just.

Feel free to tell anyone you want.
Hey girl, who’d believe it’s true?

If I was your boyfriend, I’d let your brother go.
Torture him to death, girl, if you tell me No.
He won’t have to die, though, if you give me love.
If I was your boyfriend, I’d let your brother go.
I’d let your brother go.

Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Over at Pursued by a Bear, Cassius put together a series of videos lauding Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters back while I was on hiatus. They’re definitely worth checking out. Even when you disagree with one of her choices, she makes a compelling case.

Still, she includes such “underrated characters” as Hamlet and Othello. And while I totally get that a character can be highly rated and yet underrated, a list like this is an opportunity to bench the starters and let the minor characters show their stuff. Basically, what I’m saying is, I want to play too. Now that I’m back, here is my list, with a hat tip to Cassius for the idea.

An old theatre maxim says there are no small parts, but below you’ll find some really outstanding exceptions. Some of them don’t even have names. If your reaction to seeing some of these is “Wait… who?” then I’ve done my job. But don’t dismiss them just yet; they’re on this list for a reason. Let’s start the countdown at 50.

50. Costard (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – With so many foolish characters in one play, it’s easy to overlook the actual clown. But Costard spins some impressively deft wordplay that puts more erudite characters to shame.

49. Pinch (The Comedy of Errors) – Just as things get about as silly as you think they could get, enter good Doctor Pinch. While others suspect Antipholus of mere madness, Pinch tries to exorcize Satan from within him.

48. Fluellen (Henry V) – The Welsh captain may speak his bombast with a funny accent, but he’s not a man to be trifled with. He bravely leads his troops into battle, and handles himself ably in private matters as well.

47. The Scottish Doctor (Macbeth) – A doctor is brought in to cure Lady Macbeth’s madness. Sadly, modern psychiatric practice would be far beyond the reach of Shakespeare’s England, let alone Macbeth’s Scotland.

46. Peter Quince (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – It can’t be easy to construct a troupe of actors from weavers and tailors, but this is one carpenter who is up to the task. Ah, the joys of community theatre.

45. Antipholus of Ephesus (The Comedy of Errors) – The other three twins may have more stage time, but the funniest moments of the play come from the misfortunes that befall the local Antipholus.

44. Corin (As You Like It) – The old forest-dwelling shephard councils the younger love-struck Silvius, matches wits with Touchstone, and reminds us that courtly life isn’t better than the simple life, just different.

43. Antonio (Twelfth Night) – Sebastian’s savior and friend mentions that he happens to be a wanted criminal. But his love and loyalty prove to be powerful forces, as is his rhetoric when he thinks he’s been betrayed.

42. Paulina (The Winter’s Tale) – Hermione may have been the one to fake her death, but it’s Paulina who has to sell it. And sell it she does, without so much as flinching. Note to self: stay on Paulina’s good side.

41. Joan La Pucelle (1 Henry VI) – Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who led troops in winning great battles against the English, was a revered heroine among the French people. Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t French.

40. Oliver and Celia (As You Like It) – They seem like they’re going to be purely functional roles: Orlando’s evil brother and Rosalind’s supportive cousin. And then, boom, they meet and it’s love at first sight.

39. Chorus (Henry V) – The “muse of fire” prologue stands out, but the Chorus stays on the job throughout the play, adding vibrant imagery to expand the theatrical experience beyond the limitations of the stage.

38. Adam (As You Like It) – Rather than embody the bleak vision of Jacques’s last age of man, the spry Adam warns Orlando of the plot against him and faithfully agrees to serve him in exile. Eighty years young!

37. Pompey (Measure for Measure) – Not quite Pompey the Great, his bum is the greatest thing about him. Sent to prison, the former brothel bartender feels right at home among his old customers.

36. First and Second Lords (All’s Well That Ends Well) – This list has a soft spot for characters who aren’t even given names. The Lords are real characters that help advance the plot over multiple scenes. No respect!

35. Duke Senior (As You Like It) – A lesser man might be slightly annoyed by having his entire dukedom usurped. But Duke Senior takes “being a good sport” to a whole new level. And notice he’s not given a name either.

34. Charmian and Iras (Antony and Cleopatra) – When Cleopatra chooses to leave this world, she is flanked by her two most loyal servants – Iras just before and Charmian just after. Good help is hard to find.

33. Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (Richard III) – Richard is so crazed with paranoia that when he accuses Stanley of betrayal, we completely believe the good earl’s denial. But wait… yeah, he went right to Richmond.

32. Archibald, Earl of Douglas (1 Henry IV) – “That sprightly Scot of Scots… that runs o’ horseback up a hill perpendicular” is outbattled by Hal, outwitted by Falstaff, and ultimately captured and released. Ah well.

31. Son and Father (3 Henry VI) – On the battlefield, Henry observes a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son. He thus realizes the heavy cost of the war, and his own responsibility for it.

30. The Thane of Ross (Macbeth) – Whether it’s victory in battle or the slaughter of your family, nobody delivers the news like the Thane of Ross, whatever his actual name may happen to be.

29. Roderigo (Othello) – Often overshadowed by the more dynamic characters in the play, Roderigo is a fantastic comic role. Hopelessly in love with Desdemona, Roderigo is an easy target for Iago’s machinations.

28. Iachimo (Cymbeline) – This “little Iago” deserves better than to be thought of as a diminutive derivative. But unlike his nefarious namesake, he never really meant any harm, and is honestly repentant at the end.

27. Lord (The Taming of the Shrew) – We remember Christopher Sly, but what of the Lord who devised the over-the-top prank in the first place. Actually, either one could make this list; they usually both get cut.

26. The Provost (Measure for Measure) – When the Duke realizes he can no longer implement his plan alone, he recruits the Provost, who proves to be an able accomplice. But why does he not have a name?

25. The Queen (Cymbeline) – She’s the classic fairy tale wicked step-mother, who even has the self-awareness to swear she isn’t. On her deathbed, she admits she never loved Cymbeline. It’s good to be the Queen.

24. The Earl of Suffolk (1 Henry VI) – He woos the young Margaret for the king, but has some grand designs of his own. “Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king; But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

23. Casca (Julius Caesar) – Other characters consider him dull, blunt, and rude, but don’t take their word for it. I find Casca to be witty, wise, and shrewd. Read over his lines and decide for yourself.

22. Countess of Auvergne (1 Henry VI) – Talbot takes a break from invading France to be flattered by the noblewoman’s invitation to her house. It’s a trap, but she ends up having him over for Freedom Fries anyway.

21. Rumor (2 Henry IV) – Best. Prologue. Ever. The living embodiment of Rumor brags about the damage he’s done, while seamlessly bringing us up to speed on what’s happened since Part One. Open your ears.

20. Simpcox and Wife (2 Henry VI) – They are almost the definition of small Shakespearean roles. But their scene is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Go check it out!

19. Mariana (Measure for Measure) – She shows up late in the play, and even then she’s no more than a convenient plot device with very few lines of significance. But then the final scene arrives, and … wow.

18. The Bishop of Carlisle (Richard II) – Richard is defeated, and Henry would be King. Carlisle protests vigorously, describing exactly what will result. As Shakespeare and his audience know, he’s absolutely right.

17. Antonio (The Tempest) – I have to admit that some of the nobles from the boat tend to blend together for me, but Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero, stands out as the most cold-blooded.

16. Moth (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – Compare Don Adriano de Armado and Moth with Zap Brannigan and Kif. Note that Kif’s first Futurama episode was entitled “Love’s Labour’s Lost in Space.”

15. Mistress Overdone (Measure for Measure) – She’s had nine husbands (“overdone by the last”) and this clear-eyed brothel owner still manages to run her business like a professional.

14. Gratiano (The Merchant of Venice) – It’s okay if you don’t remember. He’s the other guy, the one who ends up with Nerissa. But he’s also a really clever comic character who can be a lot of fun to play.

13. John Talbot (1 Henry VI) – He only appears in a couple of scenes, but Lord Talbot’s son can display valor and loyalty in rhymed couplets like nobody else.

12. Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) – Shakespeare describes him as “a deformed and scurrilous Grecian,” and that’s just in the Dramatis Personae.

11. Lord Chief Justice (2 Henry IV) – Henry V’s harsh denial of Falstaff overshadows the new king giving a high place of honor to the constable who chased him down throughout his wayward youth.

10. Doll Tearsheet (2 Henry IV) – Falstaff’s favorite prostitute knows how to handle herself in a bar fight. She gives Pistol a tongue-lashing he really should have had to pay for.

9. Apemantus (Timon of Athens) – Oh yeah, I went there. But you don’t have to read the whole play, just check out the mother joke in the first scene.

8. Pistol (Henry V) – The loudmouth soldier tends to get overshadowed by Falstaff. But his bombast can shatter the stage when he’s ready to discharge.

7. Domitus Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra) – He’s a loyal soldier who abandons Antony only because he can’t support his self-destructive behavior. When Antony returns his treasure, Enobarbus dies of shame.

6. Arthur (King John) – He has few scenes, despite being an important character to the plot. He makes the list for successfully appealing to the heart of a man who has been sent to murder him.

5. Lady Grey (3 Henry VI) – After her side has lost the war, the Widow Grey bravely stands up to the new King. He cannot intimidate her, so he marries her instead. She’ll be Queen Elizabeth in the next play.

4. Sir William Catesby (Richard III) – We remember the evil machinations of Richard and Buckingham, but Catesby is there with them every step of the way, and seems to have no conscience about it.

3. Tranio (The Taming of the Shrew) – It’s easy to forget about Tranio. But while his master is playing servant to win his one true love, Tranio’s the servant who is playing his master – the much harder role!

2. First Gravedigger (Hamlet) – Often dismissed as merely a comic character, the Gravedigger gives Hamlet a chance to reflect on matters of life and death, thus underscoring one of the major themes of the play.

1. Jack Cade (2 Henry VI) – He’s an unlikely claimant to the throne, but his populist rhetoric has the power to start a rebellion at least. This is, I believe, Shakespeare’s most underrated character.

And finally, I invite my friends at Pursued By a Bear to join me in awarding an honorable mention to the most awesome, most minor character in the entire canon…

THE BEAR!

Top Ten Shakespeare Audio Productions

Monday, August 29th, 2011

In Shakespeare’s time, people did not go to “see” a play; they went to “hear” a play. Which Shakespeare play would you like to hear?

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my Shakespeare addiction that referenced the Caedmon audio production of As You Like It. Regular readers of the blog know well the extent of this addiction, but what they may not know is the degree to which that addiction includes audio productions of Shakespeare. Most people organize their mp3 playlists with different genres of music plus one “Spoken Word” category. My iPhone has a “Music” playlist, with various Spoken Word sub-genres, including several playlists of performances of Shakespeare. Given the hours upon hours I have spent listening to these productions, I am now pleased to share with you my ten very favorite selections.

Now, if this is your thing, you really need to get The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare. This is a breathtaking collection of top-quality productions of each of Shakespeare’s plays, directed by Clive Brill and with original music by Dominique Le Gendre. The advantage of buying the set is that you will then have the option to listen to any title you choose. But if you’re not ready to make that kind of investment into the eclectic world of Shakespeare audio, I can give you my own top picks so you can get your feet wet before diving into the deep end of the pool.

Standard disclaimers apply. These are based on my own preferences, which are always subject to change. I based my rankings on writing, acting, directing, production, and music. I limited myself to modern productions only, so you won’t find Paul Robeson or Orson Welles on the list. And I’m sure there are many excellent productions I haven’t listened to. Basically, these are the ten audio productions of Shakespeare I find myself returning to again and again.

And, in keeping with tradition, my top ten list will have twenty entries. Enjoy!

1. King Lear (BBC)

Directed by Glyn Dearman; Starring Sir John Gielgud (Lear), Kenneth Branagh (Edmund), Emma Thompson (Cordelia), Derek Jacobi (France), Bob Hoskins (Oswald), Judi Dench (Goneril), Michael Williams (Fool), and Richard Briers (Gloucester).

This, to me, is the definitive audio Lear. Gielgud takes a larger-than-life character and truly brings out his humanity. An all-star cast delivers solid performances across the ensemble. This is Shakespeare the way it was meant to be performed.

2. As You Like It (Caedmon)

Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind gives one of the greatest audio performances I’ve ever heard. If you’re a fan of the play, or even if you’re not, you owe it to yourself to hear this amazing production.

3. Richard III (Cambridge)

Starring Kenneth Branagh (Richard III), Celia Imrie (Queen Elizabeth), Bruce Alexander (Edward IV), Michael Maloney (Clarence), John Shrapnel (Hastings), Stella Gonet (Anne), Jamie Glover (Richmond), and Nicholas Farrell (Buckingham).

I wouldn’t really have thought of Branagh for the hunchbacked villain, but he does a great job leading a top-notch cast in performing Shakespeare’s classic history play. I never really knew how much was going on in this play until I heard this production.

4. Julius Caesar (Arkangel)

Starring Michael Feast (Julius Caesar), John Bowe (Brutus), Adrian Lester (Mark Antony), Geoffrey Whitehead (Cassius), Estelle Kohler (Portia), and Jonathan Tayler (Octavius).

I can listen to this one again and again. The exchanges between Bowe’s Brutus and Whitehead’s Cassius are electric, and Marc Antony’s powerful monologues are explosive in Lester’s more-than-capable hands.

5. The Comedy of Errors (Arkangel)

Starring David Tennant (Antipholus of Syracuse), Brendan Coyle (Antipholus of Ephesus), Alan Cox (Dromio of Syracuse), Jason O’Mara (Dromio of Ephesus), Niamh Cusack (Adriana), Sorcha Cusack (Luciana), and Trevor Peacock (Egeon).

Along his path to directing the canon, Clive Brill has a lot of fun with Shakespeare’s only slapstick comedy. Silly sound effects and comical music underscore fantastic comic performances by a brilliant cast. Remember, dying is easy; Comedy‘s hard.

6. King John (Arkangel)

Starring Michael Feast (King John), Eileen Atkins (Constance), Michael Maloney (Bastard), Geoffrey Whitehead (Phillip), Trevor Peacock (Hubert), Bill Nighy (Pandulph), and Margaret Robertson (Elinor).

Michael Maloney steals this particular show, as the Bastard often does in King John. But strong performances across the cast have the power to churn the blood and tug a few heartstrings as well.

7. Macbeth (Caedmon)

There are a number of audio Macbeths to choose from, but I give Anthony Quayle pride of place. Mood-enhancing sound effects and strong performances across the board make this production the Macbeth of choice.

8. Othello (Cambridge)

Starring Hugh Quarshie (Othello), Anton Lesser (Iago), Emma Fielding (Desdemona).

Lesser’s edgy voice creates a dangerous Iago, who provokes a genuine sense of menace. Quarshie’s passionate Othello makes for a worthy tragic figure. Together, the two performances leave us with an unforgettable audio experience.

9. Henry V (Cambridge)

Directed by David Timson; Starring Samuel West as Henry V.

This is a stirring and creative production of Henry V. Vibrant interpretations of even the minor characters make for a consistently interesting and entertaining presentation of the well-beloved history.

10. As You Like It (Arkangel)

Starring Niamh Cusak (Rosalind), Stephen Mangan (Orlando), Gerard Murphy (Jaques), Clarence Smith (Touchstone), and Victoria Hamilton (Celia).

This is a really great audio production of the play. I rated the other version much higher, but I actually prefer Dominique Le Gendre’s music in this one. And for As You Like It, the music is no insignificant character.

11. Measure for Measure (Arkangel)

Starring Roger Allan (Duke), Simon Russell Beale (Angelo), Stella Gonet (Isabella), Jonathan Firth (Claudio), and Stephen Mangan (Lucio).

Here’s another one I keep revisiting. Beale and Gonet create sparks as Angelo and Isabella, Mangan is brilliant as Lucio, and Allan’s Duke never lets you forget who’s in charge. I think I want to go listen to this one right now.

12. King Lear (Naxos)

Starring Paul Scofield (Lear), Alec McCowen (Gloucester), Kenneth Branagh (Fool), David Burke (Kent), Harriet Walter (Goneril), Emilia Fox (Cordelia), Sara Kestelman (Regan), Richard McCabe (Edgar), and Toby Stephens (Edmund).

Okay, so Paul Scofield as Lear should be enough, right? But he is supported by a great ensemble cast in a well-directed version of one of the greatest plays ever written. Check it out!

13. The Tempest (Naxos)

Starring Ian McKellen (Prospero), Scott Handy (Ariel), Emilia Fox (Miranda), Neville Jason (Antonio), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ferdinand), and Ben Onwukwe (Caliban).

Okay, so Ian McKellen as Prospero should be enough, right? But this is another high-quality Naxos masterpiece – a must-have for Shakespeare audio collectors.

14. Henry IV, Part One (Arkangel)

Starring Jamie Glover (Hal), Julian Glover (Henry IV), Alan Cox (Hotspur), and Richard Griffiths (Falstaff).

I really love this play, and the Arkangel production does it great justice. Griffiths creates a Falstaff with his voice that has the power to rival his stage counterparts. Each scene in this production is like a little gift-wrapped present.

15. Hamlet (Cambridge)

Anton Lesser is the man! This time, he lends his distinctive voice to the Melancholy Dane, striking just the right balance between contemplative and bitter, between witty and mad. There are certainly other audio Hamlets, but Lesser is greater!

16. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Naxos)

Starring Warren Mitchell (Bottom), Michael Maloney (Oberon), Sarah Woodward (Titania), Jack Ellis (Theseus), Benjamin Soames (Lysander), Jamie Glover (Demetrius), Cathy Sara (Hermia), Emily Raymond (Helena), and Ian Hughes (Puck).

Again, I have several versions of the Dream to choose from, but I think I’ll take Naxos for the win. I’ve heard these words so many times, it’s an impressive production that can still make me laugh at them.

17. Richard II (Arkangel)

Starring Rupert Graves (Richard II), Julian Glover (Bolingbroke), and John Wood (John of Gaunt).

Let’s talk of Graves. (See what I did there?) He gives an outstanding performance as Richard, which is important, because – let’s face it – he does tend to go on a little.

18. Henry VI, Part Three (Arkangel)

Starring David Tennant (Henry VI), Kelly Hunter (Margaret), Clive Merrison (York), Stephen Boxer (Edward), John Bowe (Warwick), and David Troughton (Richard).

This is the beauty of the Arkangel series. You can listen to any play, any act, any scene you like. And sometimes, you just really need to hear the “paper crown” scene. When that day comes for you, this is the recording you’ll want to have.

19. Romeo and Juliet (Arkangel)

Starring Joseph Fiennes (Romeo), Maria Miles (Juliet), and Elizabeth Spriggs (Nurse).

Dominique Le Gendre’s love theme for this production becomes the theme song for the entire Arkangel series. Fiennes and Miles are wonderful, as you knew they would be. When you want to hear this play, hear this version.

20. Twelfth Night (Cambridge)

Starring Stella Gonet (Viola), Jonathan Keeble (Orsino), Jane Whittenshaw (Maria), Malcolm Sinclair (Andrew), David Timson (Feste), Lucy Whybrow (Olivia), Christopher Godwin (Malvolio), and Gerard Murphy (Toby).

Well, what can I say, this is my twentieth favorite. But it’s the best of all of the Twelfth Night productions I own, and it’s a great presentation of a fun play, so why not give it a listen?

Under the Influence

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

I’ve been asked by the good folks at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to participate in a project with other bloggers in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday. The idea is to describe in a blog post how Shakespeare has influenced my life. My first impulse was to decline. First of all, it would require providing a name and bio, and I blog anonymously. Though I’ve linked to it several times, I’ve never posted my full name on the blog. More importantly, Shakespeare’s influence is an aspect of my life I don’t usually like to talk about. But perhaps this is an opportunity. By speaking out now, I can help others avoid the nightmare I have lived through. Because you see, my friends, Shakespeare has completely destroyed my life.

As a high school student, I showed a modicum of potential to become a productive member of society. I went into college as an undeclared major, with an array of exciting career options ahead of me. I took classes in a variety of disciplines, with the naive hope of discovering my passions. I took an acting class on a whim, and the professor suggested that I audition for her play. I was ready to do it, until I found that the play was by Shakespeare. Now, I was always taught to stay away from Shakespeare, but the professor was persuasive and I figured there wouldn’t be any harm in trying it just that once.

I was cast as Sebastian in Twelfth Night. I memorized my difficult lines by rote and went through the rehearsal process. One night, while I was waiting backstage and listening to the play, a single line caught in my ear and made me smile. “Hey, that’s pretty clever,” I admitted. A bit later, another line stuck in my head. “I see what he’s doing there.” Like popcorn popping, the revelations began to gradually speed up. Each weave of imagery, each implied metaphor, each beat of the iamb was like a jolt of adrenaline to my young brain. I was converted into a card-carrying Shakespeare fan.

I continued with acting as well, and in my junior year I had the opportunity to play Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was the experience that first sent me down the rabbit hole. No longer just a casual Shakespeare fan, I had become a full-blown addict. And of course the comedies proved to be merely a gateway drug to the harder stuff. My senior year, I discovered Hamlet, and what should have been a year of personal exploration and maturation was completely lost to that play. I would read it over and over, fascinated by the experience of making new discoveries every time, no matter how many times I had read it. Any thoughts I may have ever had of doing anything else were drowned in that play.

I needed more… Masters degree… Ph.D… My dissertation was on teaching Shakespeare to elementary school students. No longer content to be merely a user, I had become a dealer. A pusher. Could I decrease my own misery by dragging down others with me? I was determined to find out. I started teaching graduate-level Shakespeare courses at NYU – first a beginner, than an advanced class. I was completely out of control. I founded a Shakespeare reading group. I started a Shakespeare-themed blog. I taught for the Folger’s summer Teaching Shakespeare Institute for teachers. Conferences. Lectures. Seminars. Nothing was ever enough. When life threw me a curve ball, I went looking for answers at the bottom of a Riverside Complete Works anthology. I re-read Midsummer, and hit Bottom.

And what has it all gotten me? I am forty years old, and I have never held a full-time job. I support myself by working part-time, training teachers, administrators, school-based data teams, graduate students… anyone, as long as it will pay for that next Caedmon audio production of As You Like It. Had I never discovered Shakespeare, never developed that unquenchable thirst, who knows where I’d be today? But I know where I’ll be tonight. There’s an off-off-Broadway production of Measure for Measure in the West Village. Picture it. I walk the mean streets of Manhattan, desperate for a fix. I turn down a dark alley where I see a non-descript door propped open with a piece of plywood. I slip twenty dollars to a kid with purple hair who hands me a program and waves me in. And I know that, tonight, I will get what I need. And for a junkie, tonight is all that matters.

My name is Bill Heller. And I am a Shakespeare addict.

A Measured Response

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Over at Shakespeare in a Year, Ashley is making remarkable progress on her goal to work her way through the Complete Works of Shakespeare in just twelve months, and to blog about it. She recently re-read Measure for Measure, and had some harsh words for it, concluding that it “doesn’t work” and that maybe Shakespeare knew it. But this is one of my favorite plays. It works for me!

We can certainly disagree with each other, but I notice that she lists some questions about Measure for Measure that she says do not have even one reasonable answer:

Why does the duke temporarily abdicate? Why does he leave Angelo in charge, rather than the obviously more qualified Escalus? Why does he disguise himself as a friar? Why does he tell Claudio that he must die, when he knows perfectly well that he can fix the problem? Why is Angelo so suddenly and swiftly tempted by Isabella? Why is Isabella so violently angry when Claudio begs her to accept Angelo’s deal? Why is Barnardine able to simply refuse his own execution? Why does the virtuous Isabella consent to a bed trick that creates the same scenario for which her brother is imprisoned? Why does the duke tell her that Claudio is dead, why does he force Isabella to beg for Angelo’s life, and why on earth does the duke propose to Isabella?

And, perhaps most intriguing, does Isabella accept the duke’s proposal?

In my reading of the play, these questions do have answers, and it is my pleasure to share them with you. You may not like the answers, and that can be a discussion of its own, but I will provide textual evidence where it can illuminate. Please do not view this as an attack on her piece, though, and my goal is not to change anyone’s mind. I only offer another perspective to the conversation.

Why does the duke temporarily abdicate?

Duke: ’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,
When evil deeds have their permissive pass
And not the punishment. Therefore, indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo impos’d the office,
Who may, in the ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the sight
To do it slander.

He’s not really abdicating. He’s just taking a trip and leaving Angelo in charge. His reason is because the laws have gone unenforced too long, and he feels that he no longer has the moral authority to enforce them, having been slack in his duties for so long. By leaving a deputy in charge, it will make the sudden changes in law enforcement seem less arbitrary and unjust.

Why does he leave Angelo in charge, rather than the obviously more qualified Escalus?

Duke: Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

He knows that Angelo has the austerity to get the job done. But if you look at the last line quoted, he seems to at least be open to the idea that power may corrupt Angelo.

Why does he disguise himself as a friar?

Duke: And to behold his sway,
I will, as ’twere a brother of your order,
Visit both prince and people:

He wants to keep an eye on his experiment.

Why does he tell Claudio that he must die, when he knows perfectly well that he can fix the problem?

Duke: Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.

At this point, he doesn’t have all of the information he needs and he’s not sure what he’s going to do. Claudio is already condemned to death (and for something he actually did), so there’s no sense in raising his hopes for nothing.

Why is Angelo so suddenly and swiftly tempted by Isabella?

Angelo: What! do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now,
When men were fond, I smil’d and wonder’d how.

He is attracted to her virtue, but he is inexperienced with women and doesn’t know how to handle these emotions. In fact, he grows to hate himself for them, and deliberately casts himself as a villain because he sees himself that way. When he is eventually caught, his death sentence seems like a relief.

Why is Isabella so violently angry when Claudio begs her to accept Angelo’s deal?

Isabella: O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister’s shame? What should I think?

She is very religious, and sees death as preferable to dishonor. Her brother, she feels, should be more concerned with protecting her honor than with saving his own life. That he allowed himself to feel otherwise shames their family before God.

Why is Barnardine able to simply refuse his own execution?

Duke: We have strict statutes and most biting laws,—
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds,—
Which for this fourteen years we have let sleep;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

This is a comic scene, but it underlies a point made earlier in the play (quoted above). The law in Vienna has become a joke, and if Barnardine wants to refuse his own execution, nobody really knows what to do about it.

Why does the virtuous Isabella consent to a bed trick that creates the same scenario for which her brother is imprisoned?

Duke: Nor, gentle daughter, fear you not at all.
He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together, ’tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit.

The Duke explains to Isabella (as he later describes to Mariana here) that Angelo and Mariana have been contracted to each other, and therefore, their union will only consummate the marriage, which is why Mariana is able to address Angelo as her husband in the last scene of the play. Juliet and Claudio had no such contract, and so it’s fornication. I know it sounds silly, but Shakespeare did make the distinction in the text.

Why does the duke tell her that Claudio is dead, why does he force Isabella to beg for Angelo’s life, and why on earth does the duke propose to Isabella?

Duke: Against all sense you do importune her:
Should she kneel down in mercy of this fact,
Her brother’s ghost his paved bed would break,
And take her hence in horror.

He seems to be testing Isabella. My take is that he wants to know how unwavering is the moral code of this woman who judges other so harshly. When she shows mercy to Angelo, even as she believes he has killed her brother, the Duke learns that she’s the real deal. He proposes on the spot.

And, perhaps most intriguing, does Isabella accept the duke’s proposal?

Duke: Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

She probably does. It’s somewhat jarring for a modern audience, but hey, he’s the Duke. Why wouldn’t she accept? Being the Duchess of Vienna is so much better than being a nun in a convent, am I right?

Seriously, though, there are a few problems with the play, as I admit here, but not an unusual amount for Shakespeare. I actually like that it’s darker than his other comedies, but remember that it ends on a note of hope.

For more Measure for Measure fun, check out Sharky’s single-sentence scene reactions, or my univocalic plot summary that uses U as the only vowel!

I invite comments and criticism.