Shakespeare at Kentuck

Posted: September 20, 2016 by nrhelms in Casting Call, Shakespeare

Improbable Fictions will be performing Shakespearean Scenes at the 2016 Kentuck Festival of the Arts’ Spoken Word Tent on Oct 15-16. If you’re interested, chime in! We’re still in the early planning stages. You can contact me at nrhelms@ua.edu.

http://www.kentuck.org/the-festival/

This Thursday!

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Readers
Steve Burch
Mark Hughes Cobb
Alanna Fagan
Erin Hildebrand
Mark Hulse
Annie Levy
Bert McLelland
Courtney Parker
Deborah Parker
Mary B. Prondzinski
Will Ramsay
Sarah Scarr
Exa Skinner
Matt Smith
Elizabeth Thiel

Directors
Steve Burch
Mark Hughes Cobb
MK Foster
Nic Helms
Courtney Parker
Deborah Parker

Respondents
Prof. Michelle Dowd, Hudson Strode Program
Zoё Winston, Women and Gender Resource Center

The Bechdel-Wallace test, created in 1985, applies three simple criteria to fictional works:

  1. Does the story have two named female characters
  2. who have a conversation together
  3. about something other than a man?

The test can begin to tell us whether or not women have active roles in that fictional world.

Shakespeare’s plays seldom pass this test. After all, he wrote plays during the English Renaissance, a time when women were forbidden to act. That meant that boys and young men would dress as women to play the women’s roles. Perhaps Shakespeare couldn’t create many female characters because he couldn’t find enough skilled actors to play the parts.

Even so, today we’re left with a body of Shakespeare’s works where women have far fewer voices than men. Can those voices still speak for women’s experiences over four hundred years after they were written? And how can we, as actors, audiences, and readers, make sure that the Cleopatras, Desdemonas, and Margarets are not drowned out by the Octavians, Othellos, and Richards?

Scene and Soliloquy Summaries

Please note, while tonight’s scenes stage only one moment of physical violence — Cleopatra’s suicide — they do contain verbal abuse, descriptions of rape, and accounts of murder and trauma. Shakespeare’s stories depict a wide range of women’s experiences in the Renaissance, and much of that involves violence in all its forms.

Merchant of Venice, Act V, Scene 1

Portia and Nerissa are kicking back, having a cool beverage — metaphorically —  after having gone through elaborate disguise, trickery and insightful wit to bring justice, or perhaps mercy, its kinder cousin, to Venice. Though a good bit of what comes before and after in Merchant is about love and bonds, at this point the friends take a moment to notice the little things, to feel how context can clarify or obscure, and revel in the feeling of grateful relief that comes at the completion of an arduous task. Bonus: Listen for a line Willy Wonka paraphrased.

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1

In this stellar, much-quoted monologue from a show rich with those, Portia, in disguise as a male legal scholar, has found her strength in being able to speak from behind a mask. It’s not that being in drag made her stronger, but that being a male in the 16th century meant being freer to speak truth to power. Here she connects god to duke to Shylock, to establish the lines that can connect them all. She’s giving Shylock an out, a chance to back off his demand for a pound of flesh, before lowering the justice boom on him.

As You Like It, Act III, Scene 5

Shakespeare predicted “Oh no she di-ent!” 400 years ago, and one of his sharpest-tongued practitioners is Rosalind, with a fire and wit like Beatrice’s, brought out when in guise as Ganymede. Here she’s met with the rustic Phebe, who is being pursued by the equally sheepish Silvio, who longs for Phebe, who has instead cast her eyes on this new dude Ganymede. Where Viola, being lusted after as Cesario, pushes Olivia to reconsider the worthiness of her suitor Orsino, the rougher Rosalind rebukes Phebe, urging her to settle for Silvio.

Richard III, Act 4, Scene 4

Old Queen Margaret, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth lament the deaths of husbands, brothers, and sons from the hand of newly crowned King Richard and Elizabeth learns to her horror Richard’s next victim in her family is to be her daughter. While these women all have names and have lengthy scenes and talk about power and survival, the fact is they all focus on the King and his evil plans. Bechdellian? Perhaps.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2

This is the final scene of Antony and Cleopatra. They have been defeated by a very young Octavian. Antony has already killed himself, and in this scene Cleopatra meticulously stages her own suicide. It is important to keep in mind this is still the Roman Republic – Octavian is not yet the Emperor Augustus. The only royalty in the play is Cleopatra. What is interesting about this final scene is the contrast between Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, in her dealings with Octavian and what is revealed when she speaks about Antony.

Othello, Act IV, Scene 3

Just before this scene, the jealous Othello has made his decision to murder his wife Desdemona, suspecting her of infidelity. Desdemona has intuitions about her coming death, and she and her maid Emilia discuss Othello’s erratic, abusive behavior and the unequal standards society places on men and women’s sexuality. While this scene clearly fails the third step of the Bechdel-Wallace test (the conversation must be about something other than a man), what we see here are two close friends struggling to navigate a world perilous to women.

Titus Andronicus, Act II, Scenes 3-4

Tamora, conquered Queen of the Goths, and Lavinia, her archenemy’s daughter, meet in an isolated and dark forest.  While her sons look on, Tamora seeks revenge on Lavinia’s family for the humiliation she suffered at the hand of Lavinia’s father, Titus Andronicus.  Ultimately, Tamora’s sons enact her revenge by raping and mutilating Lavinia.  While no physical violence occurs onstage in our scene, the language is some of the most graphically violent in Shakespeare’s works. Two named women engage in a power struggle using the weapons they know best: unadulterated violence and womanly virtue.  While the topic of their conversation is not a man, men’s actions have propelled them toward this life-or-death moment of confrontation.  Men weave through the action of this scene silently and seamlessly – does it pass the test?

On Monday, August 22nd, at Tuscaloosa’s Bama Theatre, the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies presents Richard Burton’s 1964 *Hamlet,* the first film in our Shakespeare in Film Series for 2016-17. Film starts at 7:30pm, and the concession stand will be open.Free and open to the public!

For more information about the film, visit:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Burton%27s_Hamlet

For information on upcoming films, visit:
http://english.ua.edu/grad/strode/films

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This is actually Burton playing Hamlet in 1953, but the photo was too good to pass up. See: http://arenapal.blogspot.com/2014/07/richard-burton-more-rare-images-revealed.html

Bechdellian Shakespeare

Posted: August 15, 2016 by nrhelms in Uncategorized

Or to be more accurate, Bechdellian/Wallacian Shakespeare. On September 15th, IF will present a selection of Shakespearean scenes focused on women alongside a town hall discussion of women in Shakespeare. Right now we’re casting for those scenes (which, as per our usual, will be delivered on-book). If you’re interested in being involved, message me on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/313455652125964/) or email me at nrhelms@ua.edu.

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Back for its 14th season, Tuscaloosa’s The Rude Mechanicals will present Shakespeare’s comedy “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” 8 p.m. each night, June 1-4, in The Park at Manderson Landing; in case of rain, the show will move indoors to the Allen Bales Theatre, Rowand-Johnson Hall on the UA campus.

Free admission. Live pre-show music begins at 7:30 p.m.

Patrons should bring blankets, chairs or other seating material. For more, call 348-0343.

The Facebook Event

(crosspost from irrecollections.com)

 

Aside from poor acting, poor design, and poor direction (most versions commit one, two, or all of these sins), most productions appear to misunderstand–and therefore misrepresent–the text. Though a lot of misconception stems from a misrepresentation of Machiavelli himself (preferring the mustache-twirling villain over the historian, linguist,  and political writer), a lot of confusion proceeds from a misunderstanding of the play’s goals: The Mandrake is a test of Latin language, themes, and types. Machiavelli borrows characters, scenes, and beats from Terence and Plautus and reworks them for a contemporary audience. And it’s funny when these moments fall flat; it’s funnier still when Machiavelli calls direct attention to them: we laugh at Siro’s lack of enthusiasm in Callimaco’s plan; we chuckle at Lucrezia’s disenchantment with (literally) everything. These self-aware, awkward, clunky moments are funny in much the same way The Princess Bride’s overblown acting, over-dramatic score, and cliched script are funny.

The Productions

To illustrate, here is Malachi Bogdanov’s production of The Mandrake Root. You can watch all of it if you like. I wouldn’t:

This production fails to humor me. I didn’t smile once during its 1 hour and 14 minute run time, and you likely didn’t either (or at least you shouldn’t have). I wouldn’t waste my time showing this to students.

And my distaste for this film has nothing to do with its Wiseau-esque opening credits or its painfully wooden acting–or even its standardization of Machiavelli’s already standardized characters (as if that was even possible!). My problem is one of intention: The Mandrake Root attempts to play The Mandrake straight; the characters take themselves seriously, undermining the humor that has kept the play alive for almost 500 years. Again, The Mandrake is a testing-ground for existing tropes in Latin comedy–and, better, a testing-ground for Machiavelli.

Machiavelli’s script is self-aware, and The Mandrake is as much a parody of the author as it is a parody of Latin comedy. Stylized, discourse-ish dialogue (vis a vis The Prince) is funny when magnified and tested. Callimaco’s grand speech in 1.1 is repeatedly undermined by Siro’s interjections and disinterest. Nicia’s hyperbolic love for Latin language and culture is undercut by Callimaco’s faux-Latin gobblety-gook. The play repeatedly parodies ‘Machiavellian’ archetypes, and it should be played lightly.

Here is a clip from The Princess Bride:

Though this isn’t a clip from The Mandrake, it illustrates my point well. Wallace Shawn, who translated The Mandrake in 1971, plays the scheming Sicilian Vizini. Note the discourse-like quality of the dialogue–how quickly both Vizini and The Dread Pirate Roberts recite overblown, faux-intellectual dialogue; how the score heightens and dramatizes the scene, despite talking heads; and how incredibly disinterested Buttercup looks, despite the knife at her throat. Though this isn’t a production of The Mandrake, it might as well be; and Shawn brilliantly executes this scene–from his smug grin to his sudden, anticlimactic death. The scene (and the film) is self-aware and lighthearted. It pokes holes in 80s high fantasy by embracing the genre’s tropes and exaggerating them.

This is what The Mandrake should do, and this is why most productions suck.

TL; DR: The Mandrake is a really smart play that’s smart about being dumb, and everyone plays it as a smart play trying to be smart, which is dumb. Don’t be dumb: be smart: be dumb.

We’ve got two staged readings this month: Machiavelli’s Mandrake on March 10th, directed by Jacob Crawford, and Aristophanes’ Women at the Assembly on March 25th, directed by Prof. Steve Burch of UA’s Dept. of Theatre and Dance and held in conjunction with the Dept. of Modern Languages & Classics conference “Women, Democracy, and the Ideology of Exclusion.” Both shows will take place at the Tuscaloosa Cultural Arts Center (620 Greensboro Ave). Stay tuned to our Facebook page for details! And don’t forget Strode’s next Shakespeare in Film offering on March 23rd, Trevor Nunn’s 1996 Twelfth Night.

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Women of the Assembly copy