Friday, September 14, 2012

Othello: Seven Signs That You Aren’t in a Healthy Relationship

Othello page by Elizabeth E. Schuch for Immortal Longings Ltd.
Shakespeare had beaten our contemporary self-help magazine articles to the punch with The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice. The play deals less with race than it does with relationships, and there a lot of cautions here that modern would-be lovebirds would do well to watch out for. So, if you find yourself wondering if there are any romantic red flags in your current interpersonal entanglement, Shakespeare is here to help. Here are seven key relationship problems from Othello that, if you are experiencing currently, should be causing you substantial alarm:

[I here make the conscious choice to address the ladies, as I am unconvinced that most dudes are willing to be self-reflective about their dating lives. A blogger needs to make these tough choices about how to help the most readers he can.]

1. Your Family Doesn’t Approve 
While your freedom to choose your love interest is certainly your own, and inevitably opinionated family members will test and complicate your relationship, remember that these are the people who have proven over time to love, or at least to tolerate, you. They are the people most likely to act in your best interest. If there is something about your significant other that concerns them, it’s probably at least worth your consideration.

Of even more concern, as is the case with Desdemona and Othello, is your unwillingness to let your family weigh in on the issue. Here in Othello, Desdemona marries Othello in secret, sans consultation with Dad, who then has to find out from some shady heckler in the street (more on Iago later). Does this build trust? Does it earn your new husband any points with the family? Certainly not. Furthermore, it shows a decided lack of confidence in your guy’s credentials, whether such little confidence is warranted or not.

2. You Need to Travel Just to Get Time with Him 
Does your man’s command of a military action in Cyprus mean that you need to sail out from your Venice hometown to even try for some quality time? Didn’t you guys just get married in secret? Geez. In this sense, Desdemona makes the classic “being too available” mistake – why does she need to follow him around? Okay, Desdemona, so you’re going to go ahead and give all the power in the relationship to him, and let him know that he’s way more important than you. This girl is so 0 for 2.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Shakespeare's Theater Hits the U.S.

This fall, Shakespeare's Globe Theater will be hitting movie theaters across the United States!  The Globe on Screen series will bring three productions to our screens:

All's Well That Ends Well beginning October 11th
Much Ado About Nothing beginning October 23rd
Doctor Faustus beginning November 8th

The casts are properly star-studded, but they had my number when I saw that Joseph Marcell, who played Geoffrey on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was playing Leonato in Much Ado, and I geeked out when I realized that Arthur Darvill (Rory from Doctor Who) would be playing Mephistopheles in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

Enjoy the trailer!  I am tremendously excited for this, and will definitely be sharing more info as the premieres get closer - whether on the blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter - but in the meantime, check out for more details.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Kenneth Branagh’s second Shakespearean adaptation for the screen, Much Ado About Nothing is Branagh in top form, dynamically presenting a faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s original.

El director also quite notably dons his acting hat in this production, playing Signior Benedick in a battle of wits, wills, and wooing opposite the Lady Beatrice, played by Branagh’s real-life wife at the time of production, Emma Thompson.  Branagh and Thompson are a fantastic pairing here, bringing crucial chemistry as their love/hate relationship is so central to Much Ado.

Thompson and Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick
Branagh and Thompson aren’t the only two bringing their A-game to this adaptation; several other big-time actors deliver big-time performances here.  Denzel Washington, playing Prince of Aragon Don Pedro, is outstanding.  Washington simply commands the screen, and brings Shakespeare’s prince to life with the same exceptional conviction as he has so many modern characters throughout his career.  Washington does Shakespeare so well that I was surprised to not find more of it in his resume leading up to this film (apparently he played five characters, presumably more or less as an extra, in a 1979 production of Corialanus, starring Morgan Freeman in the lead role – I’ve got to see it!).

He knows he's good: Denzel as Don Pedro
Despite such steep competition, taking home the Shawn and Shakespeare Show Stealer Award for Much Ado with relative ease is Michael Keaton.  As Master Constable Dogberry, Keaton is just tremendously fun to watch.  He’s got great source material here of course; Dogberry is a particularly memorable character in the Shakespearean comic canon, but Keaton’s fantastic charisma and comic timing, that so light up the screen here in Much Ado, help to make Keaton’s performance remarkable in its own right.  He’s right on par here, for my money, with his brilliant performance as Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.

Keaton as Dogberry, ignoring his partner Verges (Ben Elton)
While there is so much going for this production of Much Ado, it is worth noting there are some plot points in Shakespeare’s original that are not the most modern – I’m thinking particularly of some less than empowering moments for the ladies, which I look forward to discussing in an upcoming blog on the play – and Branagh is, as I mentioned, admirably faithful to Shakespeare’s play.  Far from being a fault in the film, I personally appreciate Branagh’s respect for the play as it was written – there’d be too much to change to bring it up to date in that sense.  The feminist critique got my wheels turning in terms of analyzing the play, but it did nothing to deter my enjoyment of the film, which is outstanding.

See it for yourself: Much Ado About Nothing

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Comedy of Errors (at The Schubert Theatre, DeSales University on Thursday July 7th 2011)

A portion of the Errors cast (photo Lee A. Butz)
Performed as part of The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and directed by Russell Treyz

It was clear to me from the very first scene that this was going to be a production with a great sense of humor.  When actor Carl Wallnau came on stage as Egeon, a condemned merchant who has been searching for his twin sons, I prepared myself for the relatively straightforward exposition of what I knew to be a fair bit of backstory.  Egeon’s account is necessary in any medium to set up the play; his scene is sort of a prologue.  On paper, it’s interesting enough, but doesn’t make for a particularly memorable moment. So, when Wallnau launched into a hilarious retelling of Egeon’s woes, complete with a multitude of props, the assistance of a surprising number of actors, and a fair few tongue-in-cheek references to the festival itself, I realized that this production was going to be an incredible amount of fun.

Wallnau’s Egeon was not the only strong first impression here.  As Steve Burns (famed as the original host of Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues) initially took the stage as manservant Dromio of Syracuse, weighed down by enough luggage to take the whole cast camping, the physical comedy and well-timed ad-libs that would characterize the entire production had the crowd roaring with laughter.  Burns continued to mastermind the hilarity, embracing one bald audience member as his Dromio’s “Father Time,” a man with whom Burns went on to have a series of incredibly funny interactions.  Burns would later borrow programs and exchange glances with individual patrons, bringing the audience very literally into the action.  Burns was not alone in a masterful command of the stage; one by one characters burst on stage with so much energy that you couldn’t help but be swept up in the revelry, even when it wasn’t taking place partly in your aisle – which it often was.

Burns’ counterpart, Chris Faith, as Dromio of Ephesus, matched Burns’ hilarity blow for blow – and the blows abounded here in The Comedy of Errors.  As one set of long-separated identical twins, Faith and Burns made for a fantastic tag team in every sense of the term.  The pair took turns through the first four acts driving the comic action on the stage; between Faith’s desperate, stage-spanning attempts to evade a beating with a foreign object at the hands of his master Antipholus (well-played by Thomas Matthew Kelley), and Burns’ leap onto the back of his master Antipholus (identically well-played by Ian Bedford) with all the grace of a spritely Mexican luchador, the pair quite literally resembled a lovably outmatched pair of tiny wrestlers.

Steve Burns applying the aforementioned sleeperhold to Ian Bedford (photo by Lee A. Butz)

Some of my favorite wrestling in this production took place somewhat offstage.  As Burns’ Dromio wrestled with the misplaced affection of, and his unwitting betrothal to, the remarkably obese kitchen wench Nell, her booming offstage presence became a great highlight.  Though we never “see” Nell, Burns’ hopeless endeavor to describe her full girth to the audience – an attempt marked with fantastic physical ad-libs – was easily the most hysterical moment in production.

While the Dromios were an exceptional main event, as was to be expected here, and a number of other actors put in a fantastic performances – notably Eleanor Handley as a wonderful Adriana, and Brandon Meeks as a firm but fair Duke of Ephesus – one particular performer in this stellar ensemble was a wonderfully unexpected surprise.  On the page, the character Luciana is a dim-witted foil for her somewhat sharper sister, and a consistent purveyor of terrible advice to all and sundry, but far from a stand-out element of the play.  While Luciana may be somewhat outshone on Shakespeare’s page, actress Lauren Orkus did a brilliant job of bringing her to life and realizing her full comic potential on this stage.  As the man Luciana presumes to be her sister’s husband declares his love to her, Orkus delivers an enjoyable series of reactions with perfectly timed exclamations and other skillful comic subtleties which elevated the scene.  Orkus has a similar effect throughout the play, standing out and being hilarious in scenes where I did not expect to pay her character much mind.  She reminds me here of Kristen Chenoweth’s Olive Snook from Pushing Daisies, and Suzanne Somers’ Chrissy Snow from Three’s Company: a strong comic female supporting actress who can really make any given scene.  For all her efforts, and certainly for an exceptional performance, I am proud to present Lauren Orkus with the coveted Shawn and Shakespeare Show Stealer Award for this production.

Orkus on the left as Luciana, with Handley, right, as Adriana (photo by Lee A. Butz)

Orkus’ performance was one of a number of ingredients here that made this great play even more enjoyable to see than anyone could have expected.  There was a playful spirit driving the show, one which clearly resonated with both actors and audience.  In a Q&A after the performance, one member of the creative team referred to this energy as a conscious decision early in rehearsal to “embrace a style of performance” marked by the kind of lightheartedness that we had seen on stage.  That was clearly just the first of a number of great decisions, as a fun-loving, tongue-in-cheek mode of operations was incredibly well suited to this play, so full of both slapstick and clever wordplay on the page.  Director Russell Treyz, his production team, and the excellent cast did Shakespeare great justice here in bringing his Comedy of Errors to the stage.

I greatly regret that I was unable to post this review in enough time to get you up to the festival to see this fantastic production.  On the bright side though, the festival will be presenting productions of both Hamlet and The Two Noble Kinsmen, both led by Comedy of Errors Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy.  The Two Noble Kinsmen production will also feature a number of actors from the excellent Errors ensemble including the aforementioned Ian Bedford, Thomas Matthew Kelley, Eleanor Handley, and Shawn and Shakespeare award winning actress Lauren Orkus.  It is my great hope to catch the Two Noble Kinsmen, and I highly recommend you making similar arrangements.

l-r: My sister-in-law Mary Kate (DeSales alum), her former classmate Steve Burns, Chris Faith, and me (photo by Ann O'Brien)

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Romantic Confusion and Magical Solutions

A Midsummer Night's Dream by Elizabeth E. Schuch for Immortal Longings Ltd.
Way before Oprah or Dr. Phil got in the game, Shakespeare was taking on the most difficult situations that people in a romantic relationship are likely to face, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a veritable self-help guide for those wayward lovers.  Reconfigured in the lingo of the self-help genre, chapters of the Midsummer Night’s Guide to Messy Relationships would include (in no particular order):

How to Deal with the Violent Invasion of Your Country by a Devilishly Handsome Monarch

Why Your Daughter Will Marry Who You Say She’ll Marry 

followed closely by 

Policies and Procedures for Having Insolent Daughters Lawfully Executed

What to Do When Your Fairy Queen Won’t Give You the Small Indian Boy You’ve Been Asking For

Why Hallucinogenic Concoctions Will Only Make Courtship More Complicated

And everyone’s favorite,

What to Do When You Realize the Guy You’ve Been in Love With Is, Quite Literally, An

Tell me that chapter doesn’t contain timeless advice, ladies.  I dare you.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Antony and Cleopatra: This Modern Love

Cleopatra and the Dying Mark Anthony by Pompeo Batoni, 1763

Despite the fact that the action picks up in ancient Rome, more or less where Julius Caesar left off, there is a lot that is remarkably modern about Antony and Cleopatra. You’ve got a guy blowing off work to make time for his mistress, people getting married carelessly without bothering to get to know their spouses, and a husband-stealing diva who creates all kinds of drama for her already remarried widower boyfriend because she can’t ever really be sure that he’s any more committed to her than he has been to any of his poor, dead wives. Of course, this kind of thing is just fodder for daytime talk shows when it involves the lower classes, but it is primetime news when it involves royalty or heads of state. The infidelity of England’s Prince Charles to Lady Diana became more than just countless front pages; it became a part of world history. Imagine how much more scandalous it would be, then, if the unfaithful party was actually expected to be in charge of running his country, and carelessly placed his people at risk in order to pursue the continued pleasure of his mistress’s company. This is exactly where Mark Antony begins in Antony and Cleopatra.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Tempest (2010)

Director Julie Taymor’s Tempest is the perfect storm: the cast, the effects, the costumes, the make-up – everything about this production is phenomenal.  The shame of it is that with Taymor busy trying not to kill anybody on Broadway in her exceedingly dangerous musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and with virtually no distribution for the film’s December 10th 2010 release – can you even call four theaters in the whole country a release? – the spectacular Tempest has yet to receive the attention or the reception that it deserves.  Having been severely disappointed to realize on December 9th, that my geographical region was not to be one of the four graced with a single theater playing The Tempest, I was furious to read blurbs in the press about the financially disappointing performance of the film after the opening weekend.  So allow me to briefly vent to all of those writers before I proceed with the review:

Hello, film industry geniuses.  If a film isn’t released in more theaters than I can count on one hand, THEN IT CAN’T POSSIBLY MAKE ANY MONEY!  That is, unless there are some 100,000 seat theaters somewhere in America that I don’t know about.

Sorry about that, I just love this film, and I was super salty that people were trashing it just because none of the power players involved made its release a big enough deal.

The irony is that the film itself is a testament to the power of great decision making. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Julius Caesar: The Problem With Top Billing

The Death of Caesar at the Hands of the Senators by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1798

As Shakespeare dramatizes the over two-thousand-year-old assassination of Roman general Julius Caesar, he raises a number of timeless questions about the problematic nature of success.  Late rap music great Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G., famously hinted at the heart of the problem when he said that “The more money you make, the more problems you get.”  Whether the bar is set by money, power, position, or even virtue, the rise of any individual to some substantial level of greatness always seems to simultaneously give rise to envy, criticism, and even hatred.   Haters will want to see a great man brought down.  Unfortunately for Caesar, back in 44 BC, haters weren’t just going to hate; they were going to stab you thirty-three times in the chest.

The Notorious B.I.G.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Tempest: Adventures on a Magic Island

Miranda by John W. Waterhouse 1916

It really is as cool as it sounds.  Shakespeare’s The Tempest is like an awesome mash-up of Lost, Harry Potter, and Giligan’s Island.

What we’ve got here are five acts filled with shipwrecks, intrigue, magic, and monsters.  It really is incredibly entertaining.  The play was initially grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, others later categorized it as a romance, but the only descriptor that really matters here is fun, because that’s exactly what The Tempest is.  It’s got everything.

The drama kicks off right away as a ship filled with important passengers (the King of Naples being one) loses its battle with a fierce storm.  However, this particular tempest is not the work of Mother Nature; it was conjured by a POWERFUL SORCERER!  Dun Dun Duuuuuunnnnnn! 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Titus (1999)

Little did I know, when I literally tried to pitch a film adaptation of Titus Andronicus to Quentin Tarantino several months ago, that critically acclaimed director Julie Taymor made her debut bringing Titus to the big screen back in 1999.  I guess that explains why Tarantino’s agent never got back to me.  Note to self: do more research before contacting Hollywood agents with your next big idea.  In fairness to Julie Taymor, I’ll say that I was dreading my viewing of Titus well before I hit play.  Shakespeare’s text is so gruesome and disturbing that I wasn’t sure I had the stomach to make it through the whole film.  But with Taymor’s Tempest on the way, I knew that I had to acknowledge this bold new voice in Shakespearean cinema.

I had braced myself for horror, but nothing could have prepared me for Titus’s opening scene.  Having expected the action to begin in ancient Rome, I was caught completely off guard when the first thing I saw was a young boy with a paper bag over his head, breaking his toys apart amid a large-scale ketchup explosion at a 1950s-era kitchen table. In fact, I was afraid I had inserted the wrong disc into my DVD player.  Though this fear turned out to be unfounded, the strange scene made for anxiety-filled viewing all the same.  Things did calm down for me moments later as a large man, dressed entirely in black, burst through the kitchen window to seemingly kidnap this child.  Normally, this would be alarming, but once you see the kind of mess the kid was making, you’ll accept the fact that he had to be stopped somehow.