Joffrey Ballet – Romeo & Juliet


The Joffrey Ballet’s 2016 production of Prokofiev’s and Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet opens upon a scene of stark contrasts, not just the obvious black and white of the costume and set design or the unexpected stillness of the dancers upon the stage as old newsreels play in the background, but what these visual contrasts represent—the age-old conflict between the Capulets and Montagues. These two families must share a stage world where everything is black and white, and here we are no longer talking about visuals. Family, politics, worldview separate the two groups, and group choreography scenes at the beginning of acts 1 and 2 make this clear. Costuming clearly articulates the families, and the choreography itself is a striking mixture of dance and stage combat, movements somehow both graceful and stark that express the tension and violence beneath the surface. The climactic street fight between Mercutio (Derrick Agnoletti) and Tybalt (Temur Suluashvili) in particular has such a sense of both regimented movements and chaos that the audience is left stunned when it is over, even those who knew the deaths were coming. This is a world and a stage where both nothing and everything is shocking, where black and white and harsh reds combine with militaristic music and sometimes jerky dance steps to convey a sense of animosity that is barely, and sometimes not, concealed.

In the midst of this world, Romeo and Juliet: star-cross’d lovers clearly demarcated by their pale blue dress and peaceful but passionate movements. The performance of Amanda Assucena in particular as Juliet on the night of October 14 was masterful, both in Assucena’s execution of notated choreography but more importantly in her embodiment of the struggling spirit and nearly inexpressible grief of the heroine as she mourns not just for her lover but her family and her entire world. It is a role needing to be both danced and acted, and Assucena excelled at both. Our Juliet and her Romeo, Alberto Velazquez, drew tears and a standing ovation from the audience on this particular night. The tragedy of the plot and the triumph of the performance were quite clearly theirs.

The lovers and their families and friends are set, in Pastor’s version, in a twentieth-century Italy; moving between the acts, the action moves forward in time, drawing a thread between the Fascism of Mussolini’s 1930s, the violence of the Red Brigade 1960s, and the right-wing political parties of contemporary Italy. The political implications of the production are clear, with the Capulets as the dominant, autocratic Fascists and then the right-wing traditionalists, and the Montagues as the leftist opposition. The conflict is far larger than the two families, the forces with which the two lovers must contend almost insurmountable in scope. While an interesting interpretation that brings relevance for the audience into the performance, such a depiction does have its drawbacks. In Shakespeare’s play, the Capulets and Montagues get no more description than their brief introduction in the Prologue as “two households, both alike in dignity” (line 1, emphasis mine) who are consumed in an “ancient grudge” (line 3) of which no one seems to remember the origins. Shakespeare gives us two nearly identical foes. The audience sides with no one but the lovers, who seem caught up in a pointless struggle that ends easily enough at the end of the play, when the two families reconcile over their shared tragedy. In the Joffrey’s performance, the all-black, military-style costumes and borderline goose-stepping of the Capulets leave no room for ambiguity: the audience is clearly meant to side with the Montagues in this ongoing battle. Their vibrantly colored costumes in the second half and the lovable antics of Mercutio underscore this. Such an interpretation tends to remove Romeo from danger and shift the audience’s sympathies wholly onto Juliet, who might be happy living with her Romeo and his family if only she could escape her own. While the political dimension may add depth and emotion for a modern audience, it is not very true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s text, where both lovers are equally victims and where their deaths, though tragic, seem not to have been in vain when their fathers make peace.

But the presence of the modern audience is key, as the audience is to any performing art. While a Shakespearean scholar may take slight issue with the recasting of the Montagues and Capulets as good and evil, the significance of Pastor’s version for our contemporary world is clear. Italian politics are not the only ones under scrutiny: the timelessness of the performance is matched only by its timeliness, in an American election cycle where we seem as starkly divided as the two families. The Joffrey’s performance highlights not just the never-ending cycle of violence and war between two Italian families, but the perpetuation of conflict everywhere in our world. It is telling that the performance ends without the reconciliation scene that Shakespeare’s text provides; both families simply march away from each other bearing their dead, heedless of the others’ pain, in a display reminiscent of two hardened politicians who refuse to shake hands. The imagery and performances offered in the Joffrey’s Romeo & Juliet may depart from the text, but they are yet another example of how fully the stage is capable of bringing the text to life.

Anna Ullmann is a doctoral candidate in her fourth year at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean early modern drama, early modern historiography, and Marxist literary theory. She received an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and her BA in English and sociology from Kalamazoo College.

The Company Theatre of Mumbai – Piya Behrupiya


Piya Behrupiya does what the best adaptations do: it turns the original into a canvas on which to make something vibrantly new, and simultaneously makes conversation with the original. Piya Behrupiya is a particularly skillful, sparkling conversation. In their adaptation of Twelfth Night The Company Theatre of Mumbai plays with Shakespeare like a loved and versatile toy, addressing the author by turns as an old favorite, a popular celebrity and an irritating competitor. The end result is hilarious, exuberant and, in my case, somewhat inaccessible. As a non-Hindi speaker, I couldn’t follow the intricacies of the rhyming wordplay, cultural references and jokes that by the second act had the Hindi-speaking audience helpless with laughter. A fellow audience-member near me who kindly supplemented the surtitles often turned, laughing, to say she couldn’t translate – but that it was funny. Although the actors make sure that the show is enjoyable regardless of language, for me, missing the joke was part of the fun, because it highlighted the production’s brilliant riffs on the very ideas of adaptation and translation.

The most explicit comment on the play’s status as an adaptation is embodied by Sebastian (Puranjeet Dasgupta, charismatic and witty in the double parts of Sebastian and disgruntled actor-translator.). Striding down front to make his first speech, he comments on the character’s shabby treatment by the author, counting his lines in comparison to Sir Toby’s, and summing up his subplot with Antonio in a few one-sided exchanges. His belief that he deserves better grows throughout the play until he eventually claims to be the one who translated the play into Hindi in the first place. But, he complains, everyone who praises the play attributes his efforts to Shakespeare. In doing so he both acknowledges Shakespeare’s cultural cachet and calls attention to Piya Behrupiya’s innovative flair. His irritation as a translator underscores the production’s achievement, its skillful absorption and redeployment of Twelfth Night’s tale and themes. His comments unsettle the relationship between the performance and the author implied by the gigantic picture of Shakespeare that frames the Chorus. While everyone congratulates Shakespeare, he’s also just a backdrop against which the adaptors play.

It’s hard to overstate just how much fun the production has with adapting Shakespeare. Sometimes the meta-commentary on the play’s status emerges in Shakespearean references, as with the many shout-outs to Romeo and Juliet in the play’s first half. Comparing their lovers to Romeo and Juliet, the characters archly nod to the tragic potential embedded in Illyria’s love stories, even as they highlight their own comic performances. Throughout the play, brilliantly mixed elements of Indian entertainment culture absorb Twelfth Night’s plot points. The fight between Sebastian and Sir Toby and co., for example, becomes a qawwali singing competition, Bollywood-style. At another point, devotional music is repurposed to comic effect for a love song. Due to the limitations of supertitles and my own ignorance, I could only pick up on the most obvious examples. Yet the language barriers among the audience focused attention on the limits of translation while also accentuating the extra-linguistic aspects of the performance, most obviously, music and dance.

Music is integral to Piya Behrupiya, both as a key element in Twelfth Night and of course in the play’s adaptation into a musical comedy. When not required for a scene, the rest of the cast sit behind the musicians, facing the audience, and play the double role of choric commentators and chorus singers. Their participation ties the plot and songs together (especially for audience members who can’t follow the lyrics). Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on” is a clear statement of purpose: love songs make up the core of the music in the play, with each song depicting a different variation of desire. Throughout, the songs distill the emotion of the scene or the characters, sometimes in contrast to the rhyming poetry. In fact the efficacy of poetry is a point of debate in the play, with characters like Orsino trying to write love poems only to meet with Olivia’s exasperation and derision. The songs, however, are presented as a more successful tactic, wooing the audience as well as the onstage beloved.

That’s not to say that poetry is dismissed; the skillful adaptation of poetry and music allows the production to hit its most serious emotional note. Viola (Geetanjali Kulkarni) delivers a portion of the “Patience on a monument” speech as a soliloquy. “She never told her love,” she begins, suggesting an alternate, unhappy ending for her character, and asserting that despite its comedic nature hers is “love indeed.” The mournful, aching solo that follows is a beautiful culmination of the emotions in the speech, and grounds the lightheartedness of the rest of the production. With tones ranging from poignant to raunchy to giddy, Piya Behrupiya never stales – no surfeit here – but exudes confidence from first to last.

Katie Blankenau is a doctoral student in English literature at Northwestern University. She specializes in early modern drama and theater history, with a particular interest in hospitality and privacy on the early modern stage. She received her MA from Southern Methodist University, her BA in English and a BS in journalism from University of Kansas.

Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company – The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan


The internationally renowned Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company brought a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, performed as a highly stylized Peking opera, to the Harris Theater for a two-night run on September 28 and 29th.  The opera, “The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan,” was sung in Chinese with English supertitles.  The company follows the strict rules of Chinese operatic tradition, including specific types of singing for such roles as a clown or a serious tragic heroine.  (Gertrude sang in a high-pitched, warbling voice, for example.)  Each type of role also has its own particular style of dress, movement, and vocalization. Some actors, for instance, performed in whiteface, while others had elaborate masks.  A small band just off stage played music traditional to the Peking opera throughout the performance, with the tempo and style of music changing to fit the scenes and to accompany the actors as they sang arias.  The libretto was a stripped down but recognizable version of the main events from Shakespeare’s play.

The intricate costumes and stylized acting made this production of Hamlet an intriguing blend of traditions that sometimes worked well, and at other times may have puzzled a Western audience. For instance, actors sometimes moved in extremely acrobatic ways that did not always seem connected to the events in the story.  In one instance, when Hamlet (Prince Zi Dan) tells of his father’s ghost, he raises one leg up flush with his ear.  At other times, however, the acrobatic movements worked splendidly, as in the highly stylized duel in the last act between Hamlet and Laertes. Another intriguing cultural choice was to portray the Polonius character as a clown figure.  He walked about exclusively on his knees for most of the show, but during his death scene he sat cross legged, pulled up his knees, and rolled around on the floor like a roly-poly toy.

Both the ghost of Hamlet’s father and his brother Claudius were portrayed by actors in elaborate masks, so we never see their faces. The frightening mask worked especially well for the ghost, who appeared out of a mist, rendering him even more supernatural. Claudius’s mask also seemed to fit with his formal role as king, making him seem less human and more distant from the other actors.  One could not help but be reminded of ancient Greek theatre, where all the actors performed in masks, with audiences trained to recognize whether it was the mask of a king or a young girl.

Another feature of the Chinese opera tradition is minimal settings and props. Actors mimed some actions, such as riding a horse.  And instead of formal sets, the troupe used three simple backdrops throughout most of the play. These backdrops were reversed for the final scene, to reveal a single red dragon.  Simple chairs used in many scenes were later tipped over and turned backwards to represent gravestones during the gravedigger’s scene.

The formality of the costumes and movements probably worked best in the final scene; a formal setting at Court with the masked Claudius presiding in the center.  For the duel in this scene between Hamlet and Laertes, the two combatants entered in Chinese warrior costumes.  The duel itself was choreographed as an elaborate acrobatic dance.

Overall, this was a production that challenged the audience with its blend of Eastern and Western traditions.  But our familiarity with the Hamlet story allowed us to notice how this production both honored the familiar story and also made it strange and new by adding these formal elements of Chinese operatic tradition.

Cynthia Rutz is an instructor and past chair of University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education, a great books discussion program for adults. She also teaches at and is Director of Faculty Development for Valparaiso University. She earned her PhD from the University of Chicago, with her dissertation on Shakespeare’s King Lear and its folktale analogues. She received her BA in mathematics and philosophy from St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System

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On Saturday Sept 24, Chicago Shakespeare Theater hosted a panel discussion on the practice of teaching and producing Shakespeare with incarcerated populations.  The audience, who filled the upstairs theater at CST’s Navy Pier home, was an eclectic mix of academics, activists, and artists who were all eager to get out of the beautiful fall weather and into a windowless theater to hear what the panelists had to say.

The discussion ran for two hours, and then at least another hour informally in the lobby for those who chose to stay.  Many aspects of this work were discussed, and my intent here is only to explore a few of them which have particular interest for me; other discussions that I overheard in the lobby went in completely other directions, which I feel is the hallmark of a very successful panel.

One of the first issues that moderator Lisa Wagner-Carollo raised was what the relevance of Shakespeare is to incarcerated individuals and to the criminal justice system itself.  Both practitioners and participants in prison programs described how Shakespeare speaks to them specifically.  Panelist Agnes Wilcox, the founder and former artistic director of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis, explained that prisoners see themselves in many of the characters Shakespeare writes.  Doing Julius Caesar, the cast recognized in Cassius a “con man” – conning Brutus into doing a job that he did not want to do: the murder his close friend.  Wilcox told of a guard who, watching a rehearsal, started pointing to the conspirators without knowing the characters’ names, but recognizing them nonetheless: “We have one of him, a couple of him…. definitely one of him…[1]

That is, of course, a testament to the general applicability of Shakespeare – the fact that he writes characters which everyone can see themselves in is one of the most commonly cited reasons for his enduring appeal.  But Shakespeare also writes a surprising amount about justice and law.  Even in his comedies, incarceration and legal action are constant elements.  Kate Powers, who directs the Rehabilitation through the Arts program, discussed her recent production of Twelfth Night at Sing Sing maximum security prison.  When I expressed surprise to her in the lobby after the panel, she elaborated on the choice.  In that play, Malvolio is imprisoned in a tiny, dark room and tortured by characters with whom we have generally sympathized.  Presumably that scene was funny for an early modern audience, but contemporary audiences often find it uncomfortable.  According to Powers, however, her cast and audience loved it.  They, more than anyone, understand what it is to be put in solitary, and to be abused by guards.

The prisoners take their work on the plays very seriously.  Powers related a story about a rehearsal game where the ensemble working on Hamlet had put Claudius on trial.  The rules were that the actors could only introduce evidence from the text.  The actor playing Horatio was being cross-examined and answered every question about the ghost and about Hamlet with the same answer: “I don’t know anything about that.”  Kate finally asked him why he was not relating what he knew, and he looked at her in mystification.  “I swore to Hamlet I wouldn’t say anything!”   Panelist Haison Williams, a past participant in the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institute, told of a fellow prisoner who turned down parole because he would have been paroled before the performance for which he had been rehearsing.

This work is clearly important to the participants, but one of the most compelling issues raised at the panel is what the value of these programs is to society.  It is worth, I think, interrogating the instinct that makes us think of these two questions as if they were different; that is, why do we think that something could have value to prisoners but not to society?  Itari Marta, founder of the Penitentiary Theater Company, at Santa Marta Actitla penitentiary in Mexico, made an observation that begins to offer an answer.  “Prison” says Marta, “is a reflection of outside society.”  She said this in the context of a discussion of the particular challenges which she faces in her work; in this case, the corruption which is endemic to Mexican government and which has become normalized by Mexican society, which makes resource management very difficult for her.  But this idea of prison as a reflection of society has remarkable explanatory power in several arenas.  At the simplest level, if Shakespeare and prisons can both function as ways for a society to better understand itself, then the appeal of one within the other is not surprising.

Marta’s observation, however, is also a call to think about what we see reflected in our prison systems.  By her account, her challenges as an artist stem from the way her society thinks about prisoners and about crime: “Our country is corrupt and our government wants it that way.  As a people, like anyone would, we have become used to the way things are and so the worst thing is that we cannot imagine things differently, so we have become infected.  So when there is a chance for change, we reject it, either because we don’t trust the authorities or because we don’t trust the possibility of change.”  Participants in the Penitentiary Theater Company struggle for resources that often get diverted elsewhere.  However, perhaps because of the way prisoners are considered, they have access to a source of income that is unavailable to American prisoners.  Marta’s project puts on performances for the general prison population, but they also do performances that are open to the public, and for these they charge admission.  The proceeds of the public performances pay for the production, and whatever is left over goes to pay the actors.  That may seem innocuous, but it would never occur to American programs that the work of rehearsing and performing a play is work, or more to the point that prisoners might be entitled to reap the fruits of their labor.  According to Powers, her program is not even allowed to bring cookies for the actors.  I see in this startling difference (and it was startling to every one of the Americans on the panel, according to discussions I had with them after the event) an important reflection of the different views of incarceration.  Where Marta’s challenges revolve around corruption, ours revolve around the perception of prisoners as sub-human.

In discussions of criminal justice system reform, the question we asked earlier about the value of these programs to society is usually asked in a way which implies that the questioner, intellectually concerned about limited resources, wants to make sure that those resources are being spent wisely.  But hidden beneath the question, all too often, is the emotionally charged challenge: why do prisoners “deserve” Shakespeare?  This is the issue that incarceration as a very concept struggles with.  We talk about rehabilitation, but deep in our hearts many people look to the prison system for vengeance.  Kate Powers gets asked at least once a week, “Why are these murderers getting free Shakespeare?”  The question is indicative of the way Americans have been trained to think about the incarcerated.  Why indeed should prisoners be treated like people at all?

But if the goal of incarceration were actually rehabilitation, that question should answer itself.  Who needs Shakespeare more than prisoners?  Powers argues that that the values that prisoners develop while working on Shakespeare’s plays are an important aspect of the programs.  “These are human plays, and they teach us to be human.”  Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars (a 22-year old program with 12 active prison programs) adds that the themes and characters found in Shakespeare’s plays reflect the trauma that incarcerated men have experienced.  For him, trauma and shame are part of the human experience, and he finds that the prisoners he works with find the characters whose particular traumas match their own, as a way to come to terms with their own lives.  “As actors, they have to analyze and dissect the characters, building the actor’s tools for self-reflection.”  Both Tofteland and Wilcox discussed the way such work trains the actors to develop empathy – that quality which is essential to play someone else on stage, but also, as Martha Nussbaum has argued in Not for Profit, essential to the role of citizen in a democratic society.  Exactly the role that rehabilitation purposes for those who have served their time.

Put in terms of societal self-interest by Williams, the question becomes, “Who do you want coming home?”  Because prisoners do come home.  And when they do, the question of what happens to them is, or ought to be, of vital interest to civilians.  Williams offers fairly stark options – either programs like these teach the values of our society, or men return to society with only the lessons that one might imagine are taught by being stuck in a box for seventeen years.

The effectiveness of the programs is unquestionable; recidivism rates amongst alumni of programs like those run by Tofteland and Powers are less than 5%, a tiny fraction of the 50-60% that is the national average.   One can only hope that this is seen as a worthwhile goal by anything calling itself a justice system.

[1] Throughout this essay, I am using quotes from the speakers, but those reflect my own notes taken in real time, and so are not necessarily verbatim.  Where I have italicized words within the quotes, those reflect my perception of emphasis put there by the speaker.  A final complication is that Itari Marta spoke in Spanish, which I do not speak, through a translator who was performing consecutive translation, not simultaneous.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.

Foro Shakespeare – Enamorarse de un incendio


The title of the play Enamorarse de un incendio, which roughly translates as “falling in love with a fire,” comes from the final scene of the play, in which a group of screenwriters play a version of Pictionary and discuss their plans for a television script. One character describes a painting of pyromania as “like being in love with forest fires.” The association of love with fire, and all of its wild, motivating, and destructive connotations, signals the play’s relationship with Romeo and Juliet. This play, written and directed by Chilean playwright Eduardo Pavez Goye, is inspired by the themes of Shakespeare’s play, but it is not a direct adaptation. Instead, we are offered three new interwoven stories of star-crossed love.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the production, imported from Mexico’s Foro Shakespeare, follows these lovers through desire, commitment, and heartbreak. The narrative that frames the play concerns three screenwriters tasked with revising a script at the home of their assistant. They are telling a love story, and their personal lives intervene. Two of the writers, Vicente and Viviana, are former lovers who separated after a domestic tragedy, and the latter is now romantically involved with the third writer, a younger man. As the tensions between these writers mount, two other stories are spliced in: Julián, a young artist, falls in love and elopes with the wife of an art dealer and Renata, a young woman in financial and emotional distress, dies, leaving behind a suicidally devastated lover.

The individual performances are a highlight in the production. The cast of four brings an emotional intensity to their characters across the three stories, each performer playing multiple roles and exploring many shades of love. Verónica Merchant and Luis Miguel Lombana give particularly impressive performances as the pair of older lovers, communicating a shared history and unfinished business. Hamlet Ramírez plays several versions of the young lover, emphasizing restraint and never falling into cliché. Itari Marta, though, anchors the production with commanding performances as Celeste, the screenwriter’s manic assistant, Renata, the dying young woman in debt to the mob, and Marlene, an artist’s muse. Swinging between tears and laughter, Marta’s characters are emotionally raw and exposed. In a scene where Renata confesses her failed dog fighting exploits to her mother, she is frightened, guilty, and unhinged. In another scene, playing Celeste, she stands in the foreground silently reacting to a phone call while the other characters argue behind her. A range of emotions wash over her face as she hears devastating news, crystalizing the heightened feelings of the play.

The production features three simultaneous performance spaces: a box set of a small living room; a large screen above the set that displays live video of the performance filmed by two camera operators; and a “backstage” space off right with a prop table and a costume rack. The performers are nearly always visible to the audience as they move on and off stage and as they are filmed and projected on the screen. This spatial arrangement reflects and reproduces the screenwriters’ narrative as they discuss the writing of a love story for television, while also being transformed into a simulation of television during the performance. The audience is constantly reminded of the actors’ work as actors in addition to the reality of the characters they portray. It also encourages the audience to consider the differences between live and filmed performances. While the screen offers the heightened intimacy of close-ups and guides the viewers’ focus, it also flattens and distorts the bodies that are visible below. It allows the play to roam between versions of love as real or artificial, expressed or enacted, literally three dimensional or two dimensional.

The projected images that double the performers, the camera operators who move in and around the performance spaces, and the visible backstage emphasize the performative and mediated nature of the play. Throughout the production, we see characters whose interactions are refracted through external objects, including a television script, a painting, and numerous cell phones. The characters feel intense emotions, but their conversations are often halting or one-sided. When the audience sees the performers’ bodies enlarged and flattened on the screen, or when we see them change costumes, dab makeup, and mentally and emotionally prepare for the next scene, it calls attention to love as an internally felt emotion and love as external displays for others.

As a mostly English-language-monolingual member of the audience, I have to admit that I found much of the Spanish text of the play inaccessible. Captions, displayed stage left on a flat screen monitor, summarized and commented on the action of the play, but torrents of expressive language washed over me. This had an effect similar to seeing a non-English opera performance, where emotion, movement, and spectacle are heightened and privileged over the discursive content. The actors’ vocal and physical performances conveyed the relationships and conflicts of the play in ways that felt precise, but also broad and archetypal.

The language barrier also added a dimension to the themes of the performance. In each of the stories, we see divisions between insiders and outsiders. Viviana and Vicente share a past that the other characters cannot access; Julían exploits his relationship with the art dealer as he separates him from his wife; and Renata’s parents play largely unspeaking mirrors to a love story they only hear about after the fact. My experience of Enamorarse de un incendio highlighted the ways audiences are always outside of a performance, voyeuristically experiencing the lives, actions, and emotions of the characters. In this way, the production allows the audience to explore the contours of love, while also recognizing that, like Romeo and Juliet, lovers always create their own worlds.

Aaron Krall is a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches drama and first-year writing, and writes about theater and the city. He holds his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an MS in theatre history from Illinois State University and his BA in English from University of St. Francis.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Civil Strife

New Rule: Those who do not repeat history are doomed to not learning from it.  By repeat, I mean on the stage. Don’t try it in real life.

IMG_6038_LR_LizLauren.jpgEvery performance of history is a kind of rehearsal for life. We glimpse in the passions of the past the tune we may dance to in the future. Hip-hop founding fathers spellbind us in the Chicago Loop, while indie-rock Plantagenets cavort at Navy Pier.

The effect of Tug of War: Civil Strife is arguably very different from the effect of an individual Shakespeare history play all by itself. Richard III is about, well, Richard III. Henry VI Part 2 is about Richard, Duke of York and Queen Margaret. But when you add in Henry VI Part 3 and weave them together over six hours, the individuals recede, and larger patterns emerge. York, Margaret, and Richard remain enthralling and appalling as stage figures, to be sure, but their singular domination over history itself is less, because each rises and falls so fast.

History is of course not what happened, but a story about what happened. Too much happened to too many people to recount every detail. So history is an art of subtraction, selecting out what can produce a coherent story that still suggests the “too much.” Theater in turn makes its own selection. It picks out a few individual people and forces to confront and entwine with one another. Theater re-sequences their world and seeks for emotion as the fulcrum of meaning.

Civil Strife is story upon story upon story upon story: Barbara Gaines reworking Shakespeare reworking the chronicles reworking something that maybe happened. What comes to the fore are emotional choices gone bad: hate over love, faction over common good, mine over ours, domination over decency, service and duty over just staying at home.

Sometimes the pathway from English history to our history is short, as when Kevin Gudahl as the demagogic rogue Jack Cade mimics Donald John Trump adorned with what might be taken for a Brexit button.  As Gina Buccola says in a previous post, “The media circus, the rock music soundtrack, the forced patriotism and the faux religious devotion – it all seems uncomfortably familiar.”

At other times the connection of past to present is more oblique, or admits of a possible contrast. Is political murder quite so easy any more? Are there no laws? But the step is never large from medieval to modern, from endless war to endless war, from endless ambition to endless ambition, from chaos to chaos.

Shakespeare on stage gives abstraction a local habitation and a name, whether the character is the Duke of York or of Gloucester or simply First Soldier. Even minimalist settings, as in Tug of War, have an inherent naturalism, for the bodies of the actors are a mere few feet away from us, or right next us in the aisle. Yet Salman Rushdie has argued that naturalism in the right hands becomes so overwhelming that it breaks through to a dreamlike mystical surreality or even magical realism.

Something like that happens halfway through Tug of War: Civil Strife as Queen Margaret issues her half-mad curses and prophecies. As her fantasies begin to come true, the remaining warriors are seized with dread and are haunted by ghosts.  Margaret’s words become apparitions, rash deeds, and neurotic mental states.

Magical reality in theater takes us closer to history, not away from it, moving us toward the other history below and beyond politics or economics or warfare. This is the interior history of human suffering.  As York says when his enemies have foolishly provided him with soldiers: “You put sharp weapons in a madman’s hands.” In opposition to those weapons stand our knowledge of the past, and the power of theater to reproduce it. We pray they are the tools of sanity.

Clark Hulse is professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.

Song of The Goat – Songs of Lear


Performed by an ensemble of twelve singers and musicians dressed in black on a bare stage, save for ten chairs and some musical instruments, Song of the Goat Theatre’s Songs of Lear proposes that there is an essence of tragedy in King Lear that is not beholden to the formal expectations of modern theatre, something powerful that predates and remains independent of the play. The performance intends to tap into that force and release it, without regard for intellectual analysis or understanding, through song and movement. Voices echo one another, clashing then merging, gestures are passed between members of the ensemble in an almost unconscious way, the performers keeping a constant sonic and kinesthetic awareness of one another, a result of the company’s group training regimen. They function as one finely tuned instrument. A performer might embody a character for a moment and then let that identity dissolve back into the chorus of voices. The songs, composed by Jeano-Claude Acquaviva and Maciel Rychły, draw on Gregorian chant, the Gospel of Thomas, even an Emily Dickinson poem, in addition to language from King Lear itself. Though these sources, save a traditional Tibetan tune included at the very end, reveal a largely Christian and Eurocentric framework for the supposedly elemental and universally translatable capacity of music, the range of texts nonetheless make the case for a common thread running through many different sources of poetry from at least Biblical times.

This is the enduring tragic impulse that Song of the Goat, whose name is the literal translation of the term “tragedy,” picks up and preserves, just as Shakespeare seized upon and shaped that same impulse to his own purposes. Songs of Lear suggests that this essence of tragedy may best be revisited not by endlessly restaging and reexamining the same text, recounting the same plot century after century, but rather by stepping into the emotional center that tragedy embodies and tuning in to it together, as the ensemble begins its performance by tuning bodies and voices to the room, the audience, and to each other. In order to know firsthand the passions, desires, grief, and rage shared by humans in tragic circumstances across time – fictional and otherwise, noble and otherwise – we might need to discover our responses together in a theater, a place that should be devoted not to dull repetition or the recitation of literature, but to experiencing, directly and in the present, something very old in a new and unexpected way.

This potential for language to evoke a visceral response that transcends logic and meaning and touches something universal and ineffable is almost always described via metaphors of musicality. Where ordinary prose aspires to do more than merely communicate, we say that it becomes poetry, or becomes equal to poetry; and where the beauty of poetry exceeds its literal meaning, we can only compare it to music. Certainly the popular veneration of Shakespeare takes on these terms – he is not merely a dramatist, but a poet, and where his poetry reaches its expressive apex, it is the musicality of his language that we remark upon. But what does that mean? It certainly does not mean that the words are necessarily to be sung, in fact consigning words to the status of song lyrics can only emphasize the distance between language and music. Instead, our hyperbole suggests that the right words in the right order at the right time might literally become music, break free from the stifling container of syntactical meaning and express themselves as music does, through tone, melody, harmony, and rhythm, and so touch us in the way that music does, that is profoundly and beyond reason.

It is this act of cross-disciplinary translation that Song of the Goat Theatre attempts to realize with Songs of Lear, to take Lear and render it in music. Songs of Lear does not try to tell King Lear’s story through music, but rather to do with music what King Lear does, to invoke the effects of Lear without staging or recounting its plot, distilling to its most concentrated form the animus at the center of Shakespeare’s play. In doing so, they mean to move the audience’s apprehension of Lear from one filtered through theatrical representation into a more shared, lived, firsthand experience that embodies the energy of the drama rather than the specifics of its story (a weighty rebuke, perhaps, to Ira Glass’s now infamous Tweet that Lear is “not relatable.”)

Song of the Goat Theatre was established 20 years ago in Poland by Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki. Both are alumni of Gardzienice, the remote Polish theatre center founded by students and collaborators of influential teacher and director Jerzy Grotowski. Like Grotowski and the work done at Gardzienice, Song of the Goat Theatre creates work through a collective process based in sustained and ongoing training practices that incorporate voice, movement, rhythm, and energy. They perform as a single choral body engaged in polyphonic song and ensemble movement, aimed at the most concentrated expression of the very human desires, passions, and grief that have defined dramatic tragedy since classical times. In the process, they largely leave behind Shakespeare’s language and the play’s plot. Certainly a few lines from the play find their way in, both spoken and sung, and Bral himself narrates some of the plot, but in many ways Shakespeare’s play, as we know it, is absent. Songs of Lear becomes not a staging of Lear, but a staging with Lear, in relationship to Lear, because of what Shakespeare’s play makes possible.

Bral starts the performance quite non-musically, explaining rather informally and without irony to the audience that “theatre is about telling stories,” and declaring that the performance begins with one. Instead of music or theatre, though, his story turns out to be about painting. Bral recalls an exhibition at the Tate Modern museum in London that traced the early career of pioneering modernist master Wassily Kandinsky from the pastoral landscapes and folkloric scenes with which he began to his discovery of the abstract techniques for which he is best known. The exhibition came together for Bral in a large gallery where he could see the progression of Kandinsky’s painting style from the early landscapes toward ever increasing levels of abstraction, until he arrived at an entirely black painting with some geometric lines cutting across it. Pure abstraction, it seemed. But in context of the gallery, Bral could perceive the relationship of the black painting to the landscapes, even though they had such clearly divergent representational fates, they shared a common origin and the same instigating impulse.

This relationship between representational and abstract forms is what Bral promises for Songs of LearLear in 12 paintings, with sound as color and himself, the director, as docent, explaining the paintings as we go. The dozen songs that comprise Songs of Lear are meant to occupy the living heart of Shakespeare’s play, to locate the dramatic impulse Lear embodies, and to remain there, tracing the psychic inner life of the play in absence of recited text and enfleshed portrayal of character. Bral’s commentary provides a tenuous connection, tethering his production to Shakespeare’s play so it does not float off into pure abstraction, just as Kandinsky’s black painting could only be a landscape in relation to his earlier, representational works. By breaking Lear down to song, Song of the Goat Theatre seeks to clarify the play. Not to analyze and explicate it to the point of coherence, but rather to cook it down until it is at its most concentrated and transparent – a stock of Lear, Lear’s flavors with none of the meat left behind, a homeopathic preparation of the play. A Lear not to be seen, but to be seen through, heard and felt and understood in the moment of apprehension not as the play, but as an essence that remains of the play after the performance disappears, an essence that can permeate the boundaries between performers’ bodies, between actors and spectators, and that can flow on into the next embodiment of tragedy in any of our lives or on that, or any, stage.

Ira S. Murfin is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama and the Graduate Assistant for Public Humanities with the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. His research focuses on language and performance across arts disciplines in the post-1960s American avant-garde. He holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in playwriting from New York University..