For me Cymbeline is all about the new Blackfriars Theater, an enclosed space, a place to speak quietly, a place lit by candles, a space that found William Shakespeare buying a house in the vicinity, a space for a riot of inventiveness, revived for us by Tina Packer. Think of the bedroom scene where Iachimo examines the sleeping Imogen. This scene played in The Globe would surely have produced some less than elegant speech from the crowd. Shakespeare and Company’s production chose something of a middle way, a humorous assault on Imogen’s person, which must have played better in the Blackfriars Theater, the audience being genteel, and their number being small.
Shakespeare and Company’s latest offering, “Lovers’ Spat: Shakespeare’s Famous Couples’ Encounters” was a frolic; gags and ad-libs abounded. It had an Elizabethan tinge. Actors were on-book and off-book; everybody was having a wonderful time. It has long been a positive aspect of the Company not to take everything so seriously. We remember that Shakespeare’s plays were new plays, experimental plays, which doubtless took a different path every performance.
The wise have shown us down the generations that beautiful spirits can hold two contrary ideas in the mind, carrying their weight and feeling their lightness. Through some kind of serendipity these last weeks have asked this of me. First, motion and music. I am thinking of the suave Stéphane Denève and the awe-inspiring performance of Debussy’s Jeux he conducted with the orchestral Fellows at Tanglewood. He conjures shapes which in turn conjure sounds. Rythymic complexity becomes ease.
The midwestern family, hardly one of the United States’ more perfect contributions to civilization, has taken its share of abuse from writers since before Mark Twain’s time. In recent years, Tracy Letts, with his August: Osage County, started something of a industry for himself in the theatrical exploitation of this somewhat over-ripe institution, but he has by no means cornered the market. The American — not only the midwestern — family remains a gift that keeps on giving.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Schaffer’s Amadeus are fundamentally monologues. Even as arresting a character as Lady Macbeth is given a relatively short part. As the play nears its end, she is effectively eliminated with only a short sleep-walking scene allowed her. Salieri, in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, basically tells the story he is the main actor in. Mozart is given considerable stage time, but even his most tragic appearances are always book-ended with dry ice comments, increasingly cold, from Salieri. Why? These two masterpieces have mostly to do with the power of narrative, how the story is told. How it is told becomes continually becomes the main character. Central to any kind of narrative predominance is the ever-present passing of time. Macbeth’s time moves rapidly, at a headlong pace. Salieri’s time drags along on a path of morbidity, and at the end he cannot really die. Interruptions to the flow of time in both of these dramas are quickly dispatched or folded into the larger narrative structure so that they seem excrescences. I looked forward to Shakespeare and Company’s touring performance of Macbeth because Sean Kazarian was a terrific Mercutio a couple of years ago on a similar tour.
Books aren’t what they used to be. Now we have devices. They talk and sing. They are a library. But can they really be read? Could we have a reading of a play from a Kindle? Of course we could. But could we really? What about the sound of clicking instead of a page turning? Or worse, complete silence as the page turns? In two pleasant visits to Shakespeare and Company this late summer, I started thinking about these things. How active is reading anyway? Can we read King Lear better than it can be played? What about centuries of western civilization where only a fraction of the people on earth could read, and an even smaller group owned a book? There are some among us who are fans of these eras and who claim we have lost the orality that animated their cultures. Sounds a lot to me like what people are saying about books just now. I wondered in the lines above if the act of turning a page in a staged reading is an important one. Is the actual sound of the page turning important? Does it distance us from the acting, or does it broaden the experience into something which is at once public and private? Why is there a sense of privacy, perhaps secrecy, around a person who is reading, even if they read in public?
Shakespeare and Company’s touring production of Hamlet was swift and sharp. It had something of the intransigence of youth about it. The focus was sharply on Katherine Abbruzzese’s performance in the title role. All other roles were ably, nimbly taken by several actors who needed to be able to move quickly. This necessarily pushed the play toward melodrama. This was not bad. Ms. Abbruzzese was well-able to provide us with the energy and the virtuosity made necessary by the fleet, never-stopping direction. She seemed to be able to inhabit a world between genders without effort, like Hamlet seems to. This made me see Ophelia as more female than female, and that had a knife-edge tenderness.
For lovers of Shakespeare and those new to or fearful of the bard, Tina Packer’s “Women of Will, The Complete Journey,” aka “WOW,” playing in Parts I-V on five evenings and matinees through July 10 at Shakespeare & Co’s Bernstein theater, is more than a wow—it is a tour de force for acting, conception, and for what theater was for the Elizabethans and what it can be now, but often is self-consciously not. These performances hold to the Elizabethan venue with imagination leading the way. The five parts illustrate a different theme, repeating in a sense the five-act dramatic structure of Shakespeare’s plays.