Culinary Complete Works – In Shakespeare’s Kitchen

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As a theatrical chef, Shakespeare can serve you up some pretty wild dishes. His menu might begin and end with Richard III, starting with a vegetarian first course with ingredients of Richard’s “green and salad days,” and ending with “good strawberries” from the Bishop of Ely’s garden. The featured dish in the middle of course will come from Titus Andronicus, where Titus prepares a pasty made from Queen Tamora’s two evil sons.  Tending bar will be the two Sirs, John Falstaff and Toby Belch.

Such menus lend themselves to the dramatic. When Queen Tamora asks what has become of her sons, Titus—routinely costumed these days in a tall chef’s hat—reveals the dish and declares: “Why, there they are, both baked in this pie!”

The anthropologists long ago taught us that food is central to culture. In addition to just keeping us alive, it expresses our environment, forms and reaffirms our social groups, and shapes the rhythm of our day. When I described the subject of this post to an anthropologist friend (as we were leaving a first-rate restaurant where the winter menu included corn chowder with green chile and marrow and pork chops with smoked pork belly, polenta and mushrooms, etc.), she simply said,  “a meal is poetry and performance.”

It seems natural, then, that the yearlong cultural holiday of Shakespeare 400 Chicago should include at least thirty-eight meals, one for each of his plays. The idea began in a conversation about a Shakespearean meal between Chicago Shakespeare Creative Producer Rick Boynton and Alpana Singh, the celebrated sommelier and restaurateur.  Alpana immediately thought, “this can’t just be about turkey drumsticks at the Renaissance fair.  It’s not about what Shakespeare ate, or his characters might have eaten.  Everyone who has gone through an English-language education has read Shakespeare.  I still remember reading him in third-period English. Shakespeare is something we share now, today. Let’s gather great chefs, and let each one interpret Shakespeare in his or her own way.”

And so the chefs were recruited, each distinguished by the quality of their cooking and their unique approaches, but reaching across a range of neighborhoods and price points to reflect the culinary diversity of the city. Art Jackson at the Pleasant House Bakery immediately snared demeraTitus Andronicus and prepared a Roman-style braised pork pie with blood pudding, fennel, olives and spices. Tigist Reda of Demera prepared a royal Ethiopian feast for Henry VIII, including spiced beef tartare and chicken Doro Wat stewed with Berbere sauce.  John Manion, an English major in college, reportedly exclaimed, “Only if I get Othello!” Dan Pancake, another English major, proclaimed, “Shakespeare’s my dude!”

But what does it mean when a chef interprets Shakespeare? What stirs in the mind that stirs the sauce? Alpana Singh remarked that all chefs have access to the same ingredients and the same sauces, just as writers have access to the same words. All the magic, the singular mixture, the sublime taste, come after that shared beginning. The chef is as fully an interpreter as the director, or actor, or literary critic, and the restaurant is as fully a collaborative, creative space as the theater.

Some approaches were thematic. Tony Mantuano of Café Spiaggia went full Veronese to celebrate Romeo and Juliet. Jean Joho at Everest went to ancient Rome for inspiration to accompany the Joffrey Ballet production of Julius Caesar. Michael Kornick of MK collaborated with an interdisciplinary artist to create an evening-long event around The Merchant of Venice, where guests would “borrow” gold and silver ducats to buy Venetian culinary creations, Italian wines and Amaro cocktails while listening to Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Gabrieli.

Others focused on the combination of ingredients and the preparation to find their line of interpretation. Ryan McCaskey sought out contrasting flavors to express the clashing moods of The Winter’s Tale at his Acadia restaurant, only to bring them together in harmony at the end.  Tanya Baker at The Boarding House carefully basted a young chicken until it was tender, in honor of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and served it with creamy polenta, pickled asparagus and a sour cherry sauce. Reflecting on the British wildnerness setting of Cymbeline, Iliana Regan served a continuously varying selection of foraged vegetable crudités to diners at her restaurant Elizabeth.

Naha.jpgCarrie Nahabedian at Naha chose Measure for Measure at the encouragement of her brother-in-law, who teaches Shakespeare. The title seemed wondrously culinary.  The menu she designed expressed the play’s contrasts of passion and rationality, and of temptation and purity: Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Tarte Tatin of Rhubarb, Young Chicken with Root Vegetables, Floating Island with Summer Fruits.  Response among diners at first was slow, so the staff developed a theatrical printed menu and Carrie promoted it on social media, and it took off. What had been planned as a feature for two weeks ran for four months. “The Tarte Tatin was huge,” she said, “and I was making it every night.” Nahabedean made changes of ingredients and preparations as diners responded, staff made suggestions, and purveyors brought new foodstuffs with the shifting season. “Once apricots were gone,” she concluded, “we had to stop.”

The Culinary Complete Works ran from late February to mid-December, 2016, often in multiple locations at any one time, predominantly in the central city, but also in neighborhoods from Berwyn to Uptown to a nearby Michigan resort town.  Overhead, Chicago nights were filled with Michelin stars. And then, yes, it had to stop. Each meal was, as my friend put it, poetry and performance. But feasts like these are difficult to memorialize, even more difficult than either verse or theater. You can print a poem, or tape a performance. You can even print a menu, videotape a preparation, or put a photo of a dish on your Facebook page. But the singularity of food-as-culture is that we have as yet no way to reproduce the sensation of that first taste as it touches the tongue.


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.

Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

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In Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Declan Donnellan, the operation of time is given thematic pride of place. In fact, Time herself (Grace Andrews) frames the action of the story. From the opening of the house and the commencement of the play, to the transition to the pastoral world of Bohemia, to the play’s closing moments in Paulina’s “gallery,” Time guides this Tale’s major turnings. The production’s choice to highlight Time’s involvement in human events beyond what is explicitly provided in Shakespeare’s text makes perfect sense when The Winter’s Tale is considered in its generic context, as part of the body of Shakespeare’s late romances, or tragicomedies. Many of the genre’s defining features—namely the flouting of the classical unities—may be seen as directly related to its fascination with time and to its overlapping interests in movement, transformation, and the sudden, unexpected revelations brought about by time’s passage. Indeed, the sheer pleasure of a romance like The Winter’s Tale is due, in large part, to the interconnected work of these very elements, in their ability to generate the wonder excited by what Sir William Davenant referred to as “the plot’s swift change and counterturn.”

While some elements of Donnellan’s production (such as the aforementioned pervasive presence of Time, the modality of the sparse set pieces, and the fluid use of projections) cleverly uphold romance’s interest in change of all sorts, the work of these same elements is often undercut in a production that also features choices far more static. While Mamillius (Tom Cawte) indeed declares that “a sad tale’s best for winter,” the set design by Nick Ormerod is unchangingly cold (2.1.25). The house opens to a dark, nearly bare stage, an almost void-like space that resists any ascription of time or place. The lights (designed by Judith Greenwood) then come up at the commencement of Act I where we are introduced to Leontes’ (Orlando James) Sicilian court, but the light is harsh, largely cool, and somehow just as alienating as the darkness. The members of the court, moreover, are attired by Ormerod in black, white, and shades of grey, and in styles as resistant to any particular periodization as the set. Such stark choices might have been more effective for the disturbed Sicilian kingdom if they had been met with a marked transition into the Bohemian pastoral world. Bohemia, though, is just as harsh as Sicilia. In this production, Bohemia is dark and rain-drenched from the requisite shipwreck that lands baby Perdita (Eleanor McLoughlin) on the coast all the way through the sheep shearing festival sixteen years later. The drab (grey palette) costumes of the first half of the play are matched by the similarly drab (brown palette) overcoats, wellies, and stocking caps featured at the festival. As the cold downpour continues in the dark outside the festival space, the only real visual hint at the regeneration traditionally signaled by the move to the pastoral world is found in Perdita’s flowers (which now seem strangely incongruous).

But it is also the alterations to play text itself that deprive the last two Acts of much of their warmth and downplay their investment in the power of restorative change. One of the most obvious examples is the short, comedic altercation between Mopsa (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and Dorcas (Joy Richardson) at the festival that, here, is exploded into an overly long, Jerry Springer-esque showdown complete with catfight between scantily-clad, sequined combatants and audience participation. While this is certainly a fresh, modernized rendition of this moment, the trashy daytime talk show interpretation undercuts the earnestness of the country festival that functions in the text as another one of the romance’s celebrations of renewal and which, ultimately, points us forward to the play’s maybe-miraculous revivification of the Sicilian queen (also Natalie Radmall-Quirke). Other examples include the brutal groping of Perdita by the disguised Polixenes (Edward Sayer), the downplaying of Leontes’ penitence prior to the courtiers’ trip into Paulina’s “gallery,” and the trimming of the play’s final social resolutions to exclude the pairing of the faithful servant Camillo (Abubakar Salim) with the widowed Paulina (also Joy Richardson). The final moments of the play feature little Mamillius’ ghost walking the stage, sensed by a freshly anguished Leontes.

At least for this viewer, the sum of these edgy choices lends the impression that perhaps nothing much has really changed in Sicilia (or anywhere or anytime else). Certainly, they only add to the residual ambiguity that Shakespeare himself invites us to grapple with at the story’s end: the drama is indebted to fairy tale and myth, but what should be a happy ending is tinged with sorrow. The young Mamillius remains dead. Leontes’ family is not quite whole. The fairy tale is ruined. But romance isn’t just a fairy tale—is also the literary heir to the Gospel narratives and to the late medieval miracle and mystery plays still familiar to Shakespeare and his original audiences. For these stories, as in The Winter’s Tale, time, mistakes, death, and sorrow are painfully real. But they are not allowed to have the final word. It is the warm and hopeful counterturn, the growing through such pain, that this Winter’s Tale seems to lack.


Stephanie Kucsera  is a doctoral candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in early modern drama with a focus in inter-religious encounter and constructions of English nationhood. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago, an interdisciplinary MA from the University of Chicago, and her BA in theatre and English literature from the University of Indianapolis.

Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

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I saw the Cheek by Jowl production of The Winter’s Tale on December 20, the longest night of the year, and it haunted me well into the dark hours of the early morning. It’s a play I’ve seen often before, including memorable productions at Chicago Shakespeare in 2002-3 and 1994-5. But Declan Donnellan’s stunning, sometimes even shocking, direction made me see things in it I never saw before—which often happens in a really good production of a familiar Shakespeare play.[i] The central plot is simple enough:

Jealous King Leontes accuses his innocent (and pregnant) wife Hermione of cuckolding him with his childhood friend Polixenes; he has her imprisoned, where she bears the child and dies. Leontes sends the newborn girl off to be killed by exposure. When their young son Mamillius sickens and dies, grieving for his mother, Leontes realizes his error and is overcome by self-loathing.

But, in fact, the newborn girl does not die; she is found by a shepherd, who raises her as his own daughter. Fifteen years later she meets and falls in love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel. When the young couple appears in Leontes’ court, it transpires that Hermione,too, did not die after all, but merely went into hiding. She emerges now, and they all live happily ever after.

Ah, but do they really?  The term “winter’s tale” signifies the coziness of sitting around a fire but also the coziness of a familiar and implausible fairytale. The Winter’s Tale makes fun of its own implausibility, as when the long lost daughter—whose lostness is so basic to her that she is named Perdita—has has been found, and people in Leontes’ court keep saying things like, “This news, which is called true, is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (5.2.28-30).  And when Hermione, long thought to be dead, is found to be alive, they say, “That she is living,/Were it but told you, should be hooted at/ Like an old tale: but it appears she lives” (5.3.115–227).

When Hermione asks her son Mamillius to tell them a story, he remarks, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.25), and this is, all told, a sad tale, despite the unbelievable happy end.  An inspired touch in this production illuminated the sadness for me, a haunting moment at the end when, as all the couples are assembled (Hermione and Leontes, Perdita and Florizel, and others in subplots I haven’t space to tell you about), and they all hug together in one big collage of bodies, and freeze in a stop-frame, the happy ending seems glued in place.  But then the dead boy, Mamillius (or rather, presumably, his ghost), wanders soundlessly on stage and walks to the petrified group of happy enders and sadly walks away, reminding us that even a happy ending has a tragic edge in a late Shakespearean romance—the dead child, who does not come back to life as Hermione and Perdita seem to do, not to mention the tragedy of the fifteen years of lonely misery for both Hermione and Leontes.

A more pervasive innovation in this production offers the answer to a question about this play that has haunted me for years: Why is Leontes so unreasonably jealous? Unlike Othello, Leontes has no Iago to blame; he does it all by himself.   But under Declan Donnellan’s powerful direction, the actor Orlando James, a brilliant Leontes, is constantly in motion.   His frenetic agitation reveals a man about to explode, a man overpowered by his own physicality.  His boyish roughhousing with Polixenes, and with Mamillius, and eventually, most inappropriately, with his extremely pregnant wife finally explodes into mad rage, as he throws her down and kicks her pregnant belly, bringing on the premature birth of Perdita. His violence is also obscene. His overheated sexual imagination is brilliantly illuminated, in this production, during his anguished soliloquy about his sexual jealousy. As Hermione and Polixenes freeze like statues, Leontes moves them into the positions of a copulating couple, making his imagined fears come vividly alive for him, and for us. (“Your actions are my dreams,” he says to Hermione. [3.2.82])

Polixenes, too, is well played by Edward Sayer with that same excess of energy, both violent and sexual. These qualities come out when he attacks his son Florizel for falling in love with the low-born (as they think) shepherd girl Perdita. Shakespeare gives Polixenes sharp words—he threatens to have Perdita’s face scratched with briars to destroy her beauty, and to devise a “cruel death” for her if ever she might open ”these rural latches” to Florizel’s entrance. But Donnellan has Polixenes accompany this sadistic sentiment with an equally sadistic action, brutally groping her between her legs. At this moment I realized, for the first time, why Leontes and Polixenes were indeed such boyhood pals—they are two of a kind, which is why it is Polixenes who stirs Leontes’ jealousy. This double dose of pent-up violence and sexuality is what this play has in place of a Iago. The jealousy is all the more appalling because it comes from within Leontes, whom we come to view not as a particularly twisted individual but as a member of a male world that nourishes sexuality and violence in boys from their very childhood. And the pent-up negative energy of the two men is enhanced by the extraordinary choreography of this production where, unlike most stage presentations in which everyone stands still whenever the main characters are speaking, here everyone seems to be in perpetual motion, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, like matter itself, expressing in the ensemble the inner restlessness of the two central male characters. Moments like that change one’s understanding of a great play forever after.

[i] Woody Allen (in “The Kugelmass Episode,” in Side Effects [New York, 1975]) once satirized the way that we experience the same classic differently at different times, in a short story about a Jewish businessman from New York who got into Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and had an affair with Emma Bovary at the Plaza Hotel in New York, so that anyone who read the book at that time read about the businessman and the Plaza Hotel. A Stanford professor, encountering this new character and new episode, explained to his class, “Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.”

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She earned her BA at Radcliffe College, her PhD from Harvard University, and a DPhil from Oxford University. She is the author of over forty books, most recently The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was (2005), The Hindus:  An Alternative History (2009), On Hinduism (2013) and Hinduism in the Norton Anthology of World Religions (2015).

Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths

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When watching a Shakespeare tragedy, I always look forward to seeing the death scene(s) “done right.” What this phrase means for this theatergoer is that I prize seeing the characters themselves, as “real” people, hope against hope that this death will not in fact occur, that fate can be averted and a happy ending achieved for all. A successful performance makes me believe that just this once, Richard III may possibly find that elusive horse and rally the troops, or Romeo will prolong his rambling speech for a few more stanzas, just until Juliet rouses herself (as no doubt he easily could). Occasionally I hope along with these characters that they will talk their way out of it, as pale Desdemona begs merciless Othello, “I hope you will not kill me” (5.2. 37), or believe in a miracle as haggard King Lear desperately vacillates between despair and hope, crouching over Cordelia’s body: “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; / If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, / Why, then she lives” (5.3.260-263). At other times, this suspense builds my wicked satisfaction at a villain getting his just deserts, as when Macduff delivers the gloriously chilling line “Macduff was from his mother’s womb/untimely ripped” (5.11.15-16) to trembling, whey-faced Macbeth, at once bereft of magical protection by that most unforeseen of medical events – a Scottish cesarean section in the Middle Ages. I want to see the sneer wiped right off Macbeth’s face, replaced with a knowledge of the grisly death in store for him. Within a death scene, Shakespeare often builds words upon each other to heighten suspense and to stave off the inevitable, speeches temporarily interposed between a character and their impending death. When the words stop on a Shakespearean stage, life ends.

A recent performance of Skymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater interjected comedy into the usual unalleviated pathos of such scenes, causing me to marvel at how some deaths can be both touching and uproariously amusing depending on atmosphere and tone. For an informative look at the entire performance and an important request for the same treatment of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, which I heartily second, see my colleague Andrea Stevens’s recent review for City Desk. Adapted and directed by Tim Crouch and co-produced with Brighton Festival and Royal & Derngate Northampton, this dark comedy was enacted by the four members of the British comedy troupe Spymonkey, Aitor Basauri, Petra Messey, Toby Park and Stephen Kreiss, who work together as artistic directors and/or performers to craft and perform each show. A remarkable amount of physical activity went into each of the 76 deaths, which were counted down on one neon sign to the right of the stage, while another above the stage helpfully listed the person and play (i.e. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet). Particularly, I was impressed by Petra Messey’s girlish leaps and bounds to get up on Juliet’s tombstone, energetic asp-dance as a writhing, sensuous Cleopatra flanked by serpentine back-up dancers, and gravity-defying antics inside the giant plastic bubble during the rebellion against Toby’s vision for The Complete Deaths. During the bloodiest death scene that “went through” a variety of deaths at one sitting and utilized an Asian-themed chopsticks-and-sponges “sword-fight,” Aitor and Stephen went from sedate “touching” to all-out bucket-dumping, wrestling, strangling, and attempted murder in a pool of fake stage blood, the former furious at having his own successful hits ignored and Stephen’s accepted by the omnipotent neon sign, whose approving buzzer signaled the end of a character’s life. Playing out thespian animosity through the medium of successive stage deaths was a great choice, channeling vicious urgency into the most humdrum of minor character interactions.

The two deaths I laughed and cringed at the most, however, were acted out through objects, not people, using flies at the end of sticks and puppetry. One depicted Cinna the Poet’s violent death in (conscious) mistake for Cinna the Conspirator in Julius Caesar. Wandering out of doors in answer to a fateful impulse, “I have no will to wander forth of doors, / Yet something leads me forth” (3.3.2-4), the poet encounters a rowdy mob of plebeians looking for trouble. The company acted out the menacing lead-up to the murder with small marionette stick-figures on a table who surrounded the poet-figure menacingly, while a projector portrayed the marionettes’ maneuvers on the big screen overhead. Herding him into the midst of a circle, they shrieked, “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!” The figure, crying, “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet! I am not Cinna the conspirator!” was then torn apart by a baying crowd and set ablaze, burning while the company stood calmly around, satiated (3.3.28-36). Seeing such calculated, yet uncontrollable violence consuming Cinna’s proxy effectively stimulated the viewer to imagine how horrific the actual encounter must have been, and reflect on how useless words are in some Shakespearean deaths to counter or even forestall violence and hate.

One of the most famous deaths in the Shakespeare canon, due to its unusual method of execution, is the drowning of George, Duke of Clarence by First and Second Murderer in a cask of Malmsey wine at the behest of Clarence’s wicked brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. To portray this death, three members of the Spymonkey cast solemnly recited lines from the scene as ominous music played in the stillness, holding fly sticks, which they moved to vibrate the flies in time to the words:

FIRST MURDERER Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey butt in the next room.

SECOND MURDERER O excellent device! – and make a sop of him.

FIRST MURDERER Strike!

SECOND MURDERER No, we’ll reason with him. (1.4.144-151)

All eyes were trained on the overhead screen, where the mason jar full of water sitting on the table acted as the offending Malmsey butt. Fly Clarence awoke and eloquently pleaded for his life:

CLARENCE How darkly and how deadly dost thou speak.

Your eyes do menace me. Why look you pale?

Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come?

SECOND MURDERER To, to, to –

CLARENCE To murder me.

BOTH MURDERERS Ay, ay. (1.4.159-164)

Despite pleading at some length (which was curtailed somewhat as the lead-up to the murder stretches to 190 lines in the original play), no argument fly Clarence can make will preserve him from his liquid doom. The two Murderer flies forcibly hold struggling, frantically buzzing Clarence down in the depths of the mason jar for an impossibly long time until he relaxes, floats to the top, and remains in place. Cue buzzer! No human-acted performance of Clarence’s death has ever moved me to such helpless laughter and strange emotion: seeing his murder in fly-form reveals the utter helplessness of the duke as a character, ganged up on and completely surprised at the sudden reversal of everything he believed in and thought he knew about his world, the kingdom, and his beloved brother, Gloucester. He dies knowing the awful truth of his brother’s betrayal, but such knowledge does not save him.

Seeing these deaths all at once is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of what Shakespeare means to say about the precariousness of life and suddenness of death by the way he pictures, speaks, and writes last words and actions before snuffing out the candle that can never be relit. Through its surface buffoonery and slapstick, especially in its appreciation for allowing contemplative stage time to certain deaths such as Clarence’s and Cinna’s, The Complete Deaths illustrates Shakespeare’s philosophy of theatrical death at large: a good death is memorable and eloquent, a bad death is quick and obscure, because a good theater death needs to live on in audience memory. What weds the maudlin and absurd in this particular show, at least for me, is its full-hearted embracing of chaos as an existential concept contributing to tragedy and comedy alike insofar as such chaos recalls the uncertainty, inevitability, and apparent unfairness of death. In fearing, responding to, and experiencing their grotesque demises, Shakespearean characters mirror us, having no idea when, where, and by what method they will die. While laughing at the ridiculousness of some characters’ dramatic exits into the afterlife, we as the audience acknowledge our own fragility, apprehension, and find comfort in (still) being part of the dark comedy.


Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on Early Modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia. http://www.lydiacraig.com

Pritzker Military Museum and Library – Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier

Over the months of November and December 2016, The Pritzker Military Museum and Library filmed a series of in-depth interviews with scholars, artists, and military veterans entitled Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier.  Sponsored by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the four episodes explored the role of soldiers and warfare in Shakespeare’s work and the role of Shakespeare in informing our understanding of soldiers and warfare.

I went to the museum to watch the live taping of the last episode, and while touring the collection beforehand, I was struck by the fact that the Pritzker is an art museum.  Not, of course, only an art museum, but the two major exhibits on display during my visit were both exhibits of Vietnam-era art.  One was of photographs taken by the Department of the Army’s Special Photographic Office (DASPO) of the day to day lives of American servicemen.  The photos are alternately chilling, inspiring, beautiful, awful.  They convey a sense of the war that brought home a kind of reality that was unavailable to me through reading books about it.  The other exhibit was a collection of Viet Cong propaganda posters.  Again, I was given a view of the war from the point of view of the North Vietnamese that any amount of statistical and historical information about “the enemy” could not convey.

For me, the most intriguing through-line in Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier was exactly how reciprocal that relationship between art and history is.  The series featured actors, directors, soldiers, and scholars, all working together to bring stories of war to the stage in responsible, evocative, and truthful ways.  The knowledge exchanges were surprising in many ways, but one after another, participants claimed that the value of the exchange had been in their favor – that is to say, most seemed to feel that they learned more from their involvement with their collaborators than they contributed.

The four sessions focus on different aspects of the larger topic.  The first episode features Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director and Founder Barbara Gaines alongside Fordham University Professor Stuart Sherman. Sherman collaborated with Gaines on Tug of War, CST’s flagship double production chronicling the foreign and civil wars from Edward III to Richard III.  Gaines and Sherman discuss how they went about telling this story of war, using Sherman’s historical knowledge to inform the art.  Gaines had many advisors on this project, including a handful of veterans whom she interviewed personally in an attempt to bring onto the stage something like the experience of having been at war. Interestingly, Gaines repeatedly states that it is not possible for a civilian to truly understand what being a soldier in wartime is like.  While such a claim responds to the mystique that surrounds war and soldiers, it is an odd claim for a theater artist to make; an important aim of the project of Tug of War is to convey that very experience – to allow audiences who are not veterans insight into what war is like. Gaines describes a very powerful image that has stuck with her and which she used in conceptualizing the play.  The image is from an adaptation of The Odyssey in which a river speaks of the bodies that have floated down it, the death that it has seen. Sherman – who also at one point claims that veterans have understandings which are unavailable to civilians – responds to Gaines that the theater is that river – the river that “knows the costs, the collective costs of killing.”  Such a sentiment is compelling; one hopes that art can, at its best, bring that knowledge to its audience.

For Stephan Wolfert, a veteran-turned-actor who was featured in the second episode, “Shakespeare wrote veterans perfectly.” Wolfert served as an infantry officer for eight years before leaving the Army and eventually becoming an actor and director who works with veterans, using Shakespeare to help veterans re-integrate (or, as he calls it, “decruit”).  Not only does Wolfert claim that Shakespeare (who was not a veteran) understands veterans, but that as a consequence, Shakespeare wrote characters who veterans understand easily.  Wolfert’s account of his first experience with Richard III’s opening speech is illuminating; for Wolfert, the story of a soldier lamenting his inability to fit into civilian society, and his sense of being deformed by his experiences in war, rang perfectly true.  So true that he uses that speech, amongst others, to introduce veterans to Shakespeare, using theater as a kind of therapy.

The third episode features CST actors James Vincent Meredith and Jessie Fisher as well as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Yandura, chair of Military Science at Loyola University.  Meredith and Fisher played Othello and Emilia respectively in CST’s 2016 production of Othello.  Yandura worked with the cast to help them better portray soldiers.  The production was set in modern day, and Emilia was also a soldier, so the two actors worked closely with the LTC to develop both a sense of soldiering based on both physical and psychological training.  Learning actual drill from Yandura (in what he described as an abbreviated “basic training”) was, according to the two actors, incredibly valuable to them and the rest of the cast.  Theater ensembles are used to developing a group identity and esprit de corps, but doing that through military drill was both inspiring and educational.  Meanwhile, Yandura felt that he learned more than he imparted; his exposure to the stories of the actors and to the play gave him new ways to think about how he might use theater skills to train his own students at Loyola. Yandura said that he found the actors, with their attention to detail and their willingness and their professional training in the ability to submerge their own egos in order to emulate the behavior of others, were amongst the quickest candidates he had ever trained.

Fisher’s experience was particularly fascinating, as she learned both from Yandura and Yandura’s wife (also a veteran), who came to rehearsal and was willing to discuss what it was like to be the wife of a soldier. Fisher’s Emilia being a soldier created a very interesting reading of the character. As a soldier, her first loyalty lies with her commander, Othello, and her comrades, including her husband Iago.  Assigned to “babysit” the civilian Desdemona, she is at first resentful of the woman who has no place in a military zone, and who is keeping her from “more important” duties.  It is only as she realizes that the men are behaving poorly, and Desdemona is demonstrating the pure loyalty which she believes she has a right to expect from Iago and Othello, that she comes to sympathize with her charge. This exciting new reading would have been difficult to create without the help of LTC Yandura.

In thinking more about the way that art and history inform each other, I am reminded of the vital importance of both as the foundation of a free society.  According to the staff of the library, there were protests by American servicemen when the exhibit of North Vietnamese propaganda art opened.  These veterans were angry that posters showing our soldiers being killed and our planes being shot down would be displayed.  Apparently, those protesters mostly changed their minds after actually seeing the exhibit.  I wonder if their minds were changed about more than just the appropriateness of the exhibit; perhaps their perspectives on the war itself might have been shifted slightly too.


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.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Shakespeare Tonight!

I love to watch people who are at the top of their profession doing what they do. Great artists, athletes, teachers, and performers who know the spirit and the craft of their disciplines can transform an idea or a text into joyful excellence. Witnessing these transformations inevitably leads me to reflect on the value and necessity of conspicuous competence in society across disciplines and professions. Such was my experience watching the cabaret performance Shakespeare Tonight! at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on December 5.

The show, written and directed by Bob Mason, with musical direction and arrangements by Beckie Menzie, included amusing riffs on the American Songbook, such as the opening song, Mason’s parody of Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight!” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Much like the original, Mason’s adaptation promised something for everyone, inviting us to step away from reality and into a special space: “Hamilton tomorrow, Shakespeare Tonight!” The program included an eclectic mix of musical works inspired by Shakespeare, recontextualized from sources as varied as Gilligan’s Island and Hallelujah, Baby! Light numbers sprinkled throughout the program balanced forays into deeper emotions, such as Eric Lane Barnes’ musical adaptation of “Sonnet 138” and Kurt Weill’s setting of an Ogden Nash poem, “Speak Low.” Short scene cuttings from Shakespeare performed by members of the ensemble or lines read from prompt books provided effective transitions between tunes and reminded the audience intermittently that Shakespeare, in one way or another, engendered these songs, the stories from which they came, and the very theater in which they were being sung. The beauty of history and memory allows us to take revered works from the past, such as Shakespeare, and reimagine those works in nearly infinite combinations of settings and presentational modes. As time goes by, even those derivative works become part of our collective cultural capital and can be recombined in novel ways to entertain, provoke, or enlighten, as happened in this show.

The stage setting was simple and elegant, with Menzie’s grand piano stationed upstage right (house left) on the thrust and cellist Elizabeth J. Anderson’s chair and music stand further upstage left. Menzie spent the entire show seated at her piano, smiling, providing vocals on several numbers, and expertly supporting the ensemble, which included Chicago Shakespeare veterans Heidi Kettenring and Sean Allan Krill, James Earl Jones II, Jennie Sophia, and Jordan Brown. With musical staging by Tammy Mader, the performers were free to make use of the entire space. Broadway veteran Karen Mason entered partway through the first half of the show to sing Frank Loesser’s amusing “Hamlet” and then returned with a beautiful performance of “Speak Low” and “Hit Me with a Hot Note” (Ellington/George) from Play On! She also led the ensemble in the finale, a medley from West Side Story. A distinct highlight of the program was Donica Lynn’s appearance to sing a haunting version of a Cliff Jones piece, “The Last Blues,” from Rockabye Hamlet.

The ensemble performed in many different combinations, with solos, duets, and collective pieces. Sean Allan Krill’s rendering of “Sonnet 138” and James Earl Jones II’s take on the difficult “Fear No More” (Sondheim/Shakespeare) from The Frogs stood out, as did Jordan Brown and Jennie Sophia’s delightful balcony scene cutting from Romeo and Juliet leading into “Tonight” during the West Side Story sequence. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” a duet sung by Menzie and Kettenring, stitched into the Shakespeare theme using Ophelia’s soliloquy from Hamlet, “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.” The song’s chorus stood as a fitting counter-text:

Who do you think you are,

Running round leaving scars,

Collecting your jar of hearts,

And tearing love apart?

You’re gonna catch a cold,

From the ice inside your soul,

So don’t come back for me.

Who do you think you are?

The cabaret framework allowed the audience to relax and focus on the songs and the performers. Applause between each piece compelled us to surface collectively and breathe, unlike the typical two- to three-hour investment of attention to language and story required by a full-length dramatic performance. Even so, during the recitation of lines from Shakespeare and the singing of familiar songs, ripples of their original contexts would take shape in the air and carry us to places like Verona and Denmark, the deep resonances found in our own learning and experience. Setting the performance in the Jentes Family Courtyard Theater provided a shared etiquette demanding silence and minimizing the distractions that one might typically find in a cabaret club or bar. The effect was mildly intoxicating.

As Robert Jourdain explains in his book, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, “When music transports us to the threshold of ecstasy, we behave almost like drug addicts as we listen . . . .”  Add rich lyrics to the music (or visa versa), and both sides of the brain fire deep showers of neural activity, leading to a heightened state of consciousness. Further fueling the audience’s reverence that night was our awareness of the sheer ability of those bringing these works to us, from Shakespeare as the primogenitor, to the composers and lyricists like Sondheim, Bernstein, Porter, Ellington, et al., to the designers of the show and the performers on stage in real time, sharing their gifts. Many in the audience knew these performers and perhaps attended as much to see them as to hear what songs they would do. Fairly late in the show, sandwiched between an ensemble medley from Kiss Me, Kate and the West Side Story finale, Kettenring and Krill performed “Thank You for Dying First” from The People vs Friar Laurence, The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet. The selection showcased perfectly the combination of their comedic skills and their musical chops. It was at that point that my own thoughts turned to the value of raw talent, honed by dedication to craft and the opportunity (and willingness) to share.

I have spent the greater part of my 33-year career in youth development, as a teacher, as a camp director, as a musician, and for the past 16 years, as a teacher educator. Sometimes it is nice to just attend a show and enjoy the work of the performers without thinking about how they came to be where they are in their careers. But on this night, I was accompanied by my ten-year-old daughter, whose own career ambitions vacillate between becoming a singer, an author, a pediatrician, or a scientist. Trying to imagine the experience through her eyes, I couldn’t help but contemplate the life journeys of these creative artists, some still early in their careers, others midway through, and a couple of them able to look back on decades of professional work. What in their childhoods led them on this path, but more importantly, what fueled their drive for excellence? After the show, in the lobby, an older gentleman saw my daughter and asked, “Did you enjoy it?” to which she enthusiastically replied, “Yes!” He then added, “Someday, you’ll be up there.” My thought was, it doesn’t matter to me what path you travel, just be good at what you do.

Art can provide inspiration and sustenance in a time when the consequences of inexperience and lack of dedication can prove dire. Excellence reminds us of what we are capable of if we hold on to truth. It reminds us that vision, discipline, and creative cooperation can yield up wonderful fruits. A short 90 minutes in the theater that night allowed us to forget the troubling circumstances we currently face, but we cannot take for granted that the world operates consistently as a crucible for excellence. We must dedicate ourselves to pursuing it, recognizing it in others, and appreciating it when we see it.


Tim Duggan is an associate professor of Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he teaches English education and English courses, including Shakespeare, and coordinates a partnership between the University and Amundsen High School. He earned his EdD in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Dakota, his MA in English literature from the University of Nebraska and his BA in English literature from University of California at Santa Barbara. Read More…

Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths

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The United Kingdom-based physical comedy troupe Spymonkey’s members include Toby Park, Petra Massey, Aitor Basauri, and Stephan Kreiss, all of whom play fictionalized, exaggerated versions of their own “real” identities in The Complete Deaths, which ran recently at the Upstairs Theatre. The premise of the show is as follows: an ensemble troupe is performing an evening of avant-garde, serious, “anti-capitalist” Shakespeare in which all the onstage deaths in the canon are to be presented, each death commemorated on a neon sign counting down to 76. This is “art” and, as the ostensible leader of the troupe, Toby, proclaims—real art is meant to be challenging: “the first death is of the audience’s complacency.” There are in fact only 74 onstage deaths in Shakespeare’s plays; if the first “death” is of the audience’s horizon of expectation, the final death is of the “black ill-favored fly” from Titus Andronicus. This fly, in turn, poses something of a recurring gag throughout the show in that a fly-camera is also stuck at the end of a recording stick that occasionally travels up actors’ noses and into their mouths, the resulting visions projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.

Part of the ongoing conceit of the piece is our glimpse into the complex group dynamics of the company as the performers occasionally rebel (and eventually briefly revolt) against Toby’s artistic vision: leading lady Petra’s insistence on playing Ophelia, even if that death technically happens offstage; German clown Stephan’s penchant for pulling focus with his physical comedy; Spanish clown Aitor’s ambition to become a “serious” Shakespearean actor, in part encouraged by his occasional solo communions with Shakespeare, represented as a giant face projected on a screen who coaches Aitor from the great beyond on how best to act (“point your fingers a lot”). The show was written by Tim Crouch, whom Chicago audiences might recall from his one-man show I, Malvolio (indeed, many of Toby’s direct addresses to the audience seemed to echo, if only tonally, moments from I, Malvolio).

Unfolding at a rapid pace, then, are a series of dazzling set-pieces—some pure slapstick, others incorporating recorded and live music and dance, still others performed via puppets and/or screen projections, all involving innovative costuming—brilliantly realized by these four seasoned performers with extensive training in physical theatre, including especially clowning.  The show moves from the lesser-known deaths toward the more notable ones—Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet—which conclude the show. It should also be clear that prop blood flows in abundance, especially within a blood-wrestling scene between a dueling Aitor and Stephan that precedes the intermission.

Notable stand-outs for me included the musical song and dance number performed in chef hats and aprons for Titus Andronicus, this tableau also including a kazoo for Lavinia’s tongue and a prop meat grinder into which bodies are fed, sausage links emerging from the other side. The death of Richard III was set to blaring club music, the performers wearing gas masks and black latex bondage gear right out of a Berlin sex club. In a shift into puppetry, the company manipulated unnerving marionette stick-figures for the death of the poet Cinna at the hands of an angry mob in Julius Caesar (this death scene was also projected live onto a video screen).  Time and time again innovative costuming helped contribute to the overall success of each scene, perhaps most memorably in the death of Cleopatra: upon intoning her “I am fire and air” speech Cleopatra whips off her dress to reveal asps dangling from each nipple of her prop breasts—and then whips up her skirt to reveal even more adders dangling from between her legs (the show was advertised for mature audiences). To be sure, the designer Lucy Bradridge deserves all praise for her efforts.

I found myself most taken, however, with the death scenes that incorporated some note of seriousness. For example, the slaughter of the Macduffs was initially performed within a riveting modern dance sequence that was both theatrically vibrant and poignant in spite of the contrast between the precision of the movements and the silly Scottish ‘drag’ of the dancers: bare chests, yellow kilts, and Petra done up in a red beard and red chest hair.

As his colleagues push back harder and harder against his “serious” vision (Aitor deciding that bubbles are of the utmost importance), Toby eventually quits in despair—his cue to perform the death of Enobarbus, the only character in Shakespeare who dies of a broken heart and another stand-out moment for me. In Toby’s absence artistic hell breaks temporarily breaks loose—Aitor and Stephan run amok in elaborately absurd clown costumes, bubbles are blown, Petra rolls in as Ophelia within a giant plastic sphere—but the cast reconcile, reaffirm Toby’s vision, and the play concludes with last act of Hamlet—followed by, of course, the final (and protracted) death throes of the fly, as seen on the video screen.

The show as a whole ought to convince American audiences who might associate clowning with all things Bozo of the rigor and seriousness of professional “clown” training: each member of the company was an extraordinary physical performer, dancer, acrobat, and musician. If within the fiction of The Complete Deaths Petra was hell-bent on playing Ophelia, my wish would be for this company to devise a similarly acrobatic, physically challenging, irreverent and Grand-Guignolesque production of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, the black camp tone of that play matching the aesthetics evident throughout this production.


Andrea Stevens  is an associate professor of English, theatre and medieval studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia, an MA in literature from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a BA (Honors) in English from Huron University College in London, Ontario.