Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Battle of the Bard

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Battle of the Bard: Teenagers, Shakespeare, Community, and the Power of Narrative

On November 14, I attended Battle of the Bard: Final Bout at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. The atmosphere was electric, even in the lobby before the show began, as diverse groups of high school students moved to find their friends and their seats. I was handed a program on my way into the Jentes Family Courtyard Theater and noted the first sentence on the back panel: “Battle of the Bard builds a culture of community spanning the Chicago region.” As I settled into my seat near the stage, a former graduate student of mine, Patrick Escobedo, approached to say hello. I asked him whether his students from Fenton High School were performing, and he said, “No, we didn’t make the finals, but we didn’t want to miss this.” He went on to explain what a positive experience the Battle had been for his students, detailing what they had learned about Shakespeare and about each other in the process of competing. I looked around and realized that several other schools not among the nine finalists had also come to cheer, to snap their fingers, and to feel a part of this culture of community.

The show included two emcees, Donovan Diaz and Sarah Ruggles, with Patrick Budde serving as DJ. They focused the crowd with some amusing repartee and music, then introduced the five judges for the event, including television stars Eamonn Walker and Joe Minoso, popular Chicago actor Ronald Conner, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s casting director Bob Mason, and Carol Jago, author and national leader in English education. Prior to the competition, the audience was treated to a warm-up act, chosen from the 30+ schools that did not make the finals. A group of young women wearing “Battle of the Bard” tee-shirts, and matching salmon-pink hijabs filed onto the stage, stood together, and pronounced: “We are Islamic Foundation School, and WE OWN THIS SPACE!” The audience, mostly high school peers, but also teachers, parents, and friends, applauded as the performers launched into a powerful montage of lines from Shakespeare, beginning with the words “She is . . . ,” accompanied by various movement around the stage. Lines such as “She is fierce” and “She is made of truth,” rang through the theater in succession, and then at some point, almost imperceptibly, the lines changed to “I am . . . ,” with each actor proclaiming, “I am,” “I am,” “I am,” “I am,” and then, in unison, “I am . . . a woman!” After a split second of silence, the crowd erupted in cheers. The competition itself had not even started, and yet a powerful culture-spanning moment had already taken place.

Battle of the Bard is a collaboration between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Youth Shakespeare. Following the warm-up act, Marilyn Halperin, Director of Education and Communications for CST and Manon Spadaro, founder of CYS, addressed the crowd and spoke briefly about the program’s philosophy. Spadaro founded Chicago Youth Shakespeare a few years back with the idea of “bringing kids together who would never otherwise meet each other and find common ground.” She designed the first Battle of the Bard competition in 2014, and nine schools competed. The number grew to 30 in 2015, when she teamed up with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and it reached over 40 schools in 2016. Although the event is a competition, the overriding philosophy, as stated several times by the emcees and hosts, is, “The points are not the point!”

This year’s Battle of the Bard involved two competitive rounds, the Scene Round and the Ensemble Round. The Scene Round required each school group to construct a five-minute scene from Shakespeare, without the benefit of costumes and using only chairs for props. Every school began each scene with the name of their school, the title of their scene, and the pronouncement, “We own this space!” Four of the nine schools interpreted scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kenwood Academy (Chicago) performed a hilarious take on Puck and the fairies, leading to the meeting of Titania and Oberon in the forest. Senn Arts (Chicago) took on the lovers’ quarrel between Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius, with well-coordinated movement. Both Prosser Academy (Chicago) and Niles North (Skokie) performed excerpts from the “play within a play,” with very different takes on the scene.

Teams constructed their own scene titles, such as “Viola’s Weird Day” from Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Chicago) and “Don’t Take Love for Granted,” for a scene from The Winter’s Tale performed by Christian Liberty Academy (Arlington Heights). A team from Oak Park and River Forest High School did the blinding of Gloucester from King Lear, which they titled, “The Eyes Have It.” The group from Mundelein High School did the forgiveness scene in The Tempest, and Elk Grove High School offered a lovely duet scene between Juliet and the Nurse. Whenever a scene picked up energy, the finger snaps popped in the audience. Likewise, on the rare occasions when an actor struggled, the snaps rang out in support, to guide the actor through it. The judges perhaps had the most difficult job, as any score (on a 10-point scale) below a 9.0 was greeted with a chant from the audience of “Sleep no more!”

The Ensemble Round required the groups to take Shakespeare’s words and do a mash-up. In this round the creativity of the student actors emerged in full, as they used Shakespeare’s language to create new scenes and new narratives. The stories the teams told ranged from classic to contemporary, with many of the groups employing Shakespeare’s words to reflect current events. Niles North, the eventual winners of the competition, created a scene called “The Generation of Love?” addressing the problem of bullying by taking encounters from Shakespeare and presenting them as non-examples of love through mock-abusive performance choices. The ensemble created a quasi-Greek chorus effect by commenting on the various encounters, and they resolved their scene through reversal, portraying authentic, loving exchanges.

Several other teams used Shakespeare’s language to create political messages. Lindblom and Elk Grove both created “presidential” debates with Shakespeare’s language, one featuring Beatrice vs. Iago, and the other using Shakespeare’s lines as asides to mimick antics displayed in the 2016 presidential debates. Of special note was Kenwood Academy’s “Dating Game” format, titled “Who Dost Thou Love?” In the scene, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth, and Ganymede (Rosalind) competed for a date with Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew.  The scene included Wall to divide the contestants, and ended with Katherine choosing Ganymede over the hesitant Hamlet, conniving Iago, and angry Macbeth. Every scene was greeted with loud applause, and during the second round, the celebrity judges commented on the scenes, offering praise and encouragement to the actors. At the end of the competition, all student actors were invited onto the stage to take a group mannequin photo.

Reflecting on this event, I think about the motivations of the organizers, the generosity of the volunteers, and the coordination between teachers to make the event happen. But most of all, I think about the students involved and what they have at stake, what they have to gain, what they have to offer. These students from vastly different schools engaged in the same process of working to understand and interpret Shakespeare, using Shakespeare to, in essence, tell their own stories—to create new narratives. In many local schools, under the influence of the Common Core State Standards, the reading and composing of narratives has decreased significantly in favor of informational reading and argumentative writing. The Battle of the Bard occasions the development of collaborative, inventive, and powerful storytelling, shared in a mutually supportive environment between teenagers who, as Spadaro stated, “might otherwise never encounter each other.”

The resulting meta-narrative created by the event has a richer significance than any of the individual stories, powerful as they were. In that theater space on that night, we didn’t need to imagine teenagers from a Christian school cheering for teenagers from a Muslim school and visa versa. We saw it and heard it. We didn’t need to imagine students from the suburban schools cheering for and supporting students from urban schools and visa versa, or students of multiple ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, faiths, and economic situations mingling in a spirit of camaraderie, professionalism, respect, and fun. We lived it. Stepping on stage during the intermission that night, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Artistic Director, Barbara Gaines, commented on what she had seen thus far and mused, “Don’t you wish the world could be this way?” Indeed.


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 about Tim…

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Battle of the Bard

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Among the most energizing and exciting events over the course of this year’s Shakespeare 400 festival has been the Battle of the Bard, a dynamic “Shakespeare slam” competition for high school students, produced in collaboration between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Youth Shakespeare. The program brings together more than 300 students and teacher-coaches from 40 high schools across Chicagoland. Participating schools range from public schools and charters to private preps and religious academies; the students and teachers themselves represent a wide range of backgrounds, identities, and communities. What all of these different individuals and groups have in common, however, is Shakespeare. Teams of four to eight students meet and work for months to prepare two scenes: a more or less straightforward Shakespeare scene and a creative “ensemble” scene that remixes and mashes up lines from any of Shakespeare’s works into a new whole. To keep judge and audience attention on the performers themselves, no costumes or props are allowed; the only set pieces permitted on stage are eight plain chairs, which teams may use however they wish. Before each performance, every team lays claim to the stage by introducing their school and declaring, “We own this space!” It is an energizing and inspiring way to begin a performance.

This review will focus primarily on BOTB’s November 14 “Final Bout,” in which nine teams competed on the main stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, but the BOTB program reaches far beyond one single event on Navy Pier. Prior to the competition period, teams convene for massive workshops to learn about Shakespearean language and performance techniques from expert scholars and theater practitioners. Using the skills that these workshops help them develop, the teams return to their home institutions to arrange, rehearse, and refine their two scenes. From then, they perform in one of three “preliminary bouts,” held at host schools across Chicago. The top nine teams go on to compete in the Final Bout in front of a panel of celebrity judges on the main stage of CST; in addition, one stand-out but non-advancing team is invited to perform as an opening act.

The atmosphere at every round is overwhelmingly positive and supportive. As BOTB’s organizers, emcees, and team-members often insist, “The points are not the point!” Judges do score every scene and teams are in competition with each other, but the shared objective among every BOTB participant is to empower students, teachers, and performers. The rock-concert-like atmosphere of the Final Bout is especially optimistic and positive. The program’s resident DJ “Iamb” Patrick Budde keeps the energy up with his dynamic music selections. Between rounds, BOTB’s two emcees, Donovan Diaz and Sarah Ruggles, encourage spectators and team-members alike to dance, shout, and “own this space!” even from their seats. Every participant from the preliminary rounds is invited to attend the Final Bout at the CST main stage, and the positive energy is palpable. It is truly an extraordinary experience.

On the surface, of course, Battle of the Bard is a celebration of Shakespeare. “Bill,” as he is known to participants, is the factor unifying these diverse young students; they have traveled from across a vast metropolitan region to battle over “the Bard.” More precisely, though, BOTB is a celebration of young people, of multicultural community, and of creativity.

During the first “scene round” of competition, teams perform a cohesive scene from one play. At the Final Bout, these ranged from an utterly terrifying rendition of the eye-gouging scene from King Lear (Oak Park and River Forest High School), to the miraculous reunion scene at the end of The Winter’s Tale (Christian Liberty Academy), to two of the funniest performances of Midsummer’s play-within-a-play that this lifelong Shakespeare student has ever witnessed (Prosser Career Academy and Niles North High School).

The second “ensemble round” allows for more flexibility and creativity: using language from any of Shakespeare’s plays or poems, teams invent their own scene. Some of these are more meditative explorations of a particular theme. Niles North, for instance, delivered a scene at the Final Bout entitled “The Generation of Love,” which mashed together lines and exchanges from several plays and sonnets that represent a variety of models of love. Where, the scene asked, does love originate, and how do we know it when we see it? As the scene’s chorus urged, no matter how the experience manifests for us, we would do well to “make love known” (Macbeth 2.3). Mundelein High School, by contrast, offered a meta-dramatic examination of acting. Shakespeare himself appeared on stage as a character, primarily speaking lines from the scene in Hamlet when the eponymous prince gives performance directions to an acting troupe. As other performers bungled some of his most famous lines (“To be, or not to be, that is the question”; “wherefore art thou Romeo?”; “Now is the winter of our discontent”; and so forth), Mundelein’s Shakespeare-as-director offered advice on delivery and language, advocating for a natural and authentic acting style. The Islamic Foundation School’s all-female team, who were invited to kick-start the evening as honorary performers, presented a powerful meditation on female identity. Opening with Miranda’s request in The Tempest that Prospero “tell me what I am,” the scene assembled, line by line, all of Shakespeare’s contradictory third-person definitions of women: “she is a strumpet,” “she is a piece of virtue,” “she is fierce,” “she is wise,” “she is rich in beauty,” “she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out / whole countries in her.” By the end, though, the syntactic formulation had shifted, and the performers went on to define themselves in the first person: “I am a woman.”

Other ensemble-round performances were more narratively driven, remixing Shakespeare’s lines to create a new story rather than a meditation on a theme. Two teams took on present-day politics, focusing in particular on October’s contentious Presidential debates. Lindblom Math and Science Academy’s aptly titled “Debate Tragedy” gave us a money-obsessed and deceitful but ironically named “honest Iago” debating an uncompromising, sharp-tongued “fair Beatrice.” After knocking over his chair in anger, the debate’s moderator denounced both candidates, wishing “a plague on both [their] houses!” Elk Grove High School’s Shakespearean debate, meanwhile, drew on the Bard’s vast trove of gender-based insults to give shape to the speech of the scene’s male candidate, who repeatedly bent down to his imaginary microphone to interrupt the female candidate with a sharp and low-voiced “Nay.”

Senn Arts Magnet High School’s ensemble scene took a different tack but still placed Shakespeare’s language firmly in a present-day context. In their “Rap Battle of the Bard,” Senn’s team imagined the Montagues and Capulets as rival hip hop crews. Their scene went on to offer a highlight reel of Shakespeare’s greatest insults and demonstrated just how thoroughly new generations might make the Bard’s four-hundred-year-old language their own, transforming his Renaissance London dialect to an African American Vernacular-derived hip hop idiom.

Meanwhile, Kenwood Academy High School’s witty ensemble scene “Who Dost Thou Love?” was modeled after a dating show: four distinct suitors—a deceptive Iago, an angry Macbeth, a weepy Hamlet, and a sensitive Ganymede—competed for the affections of one picky woman (Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew). Kate picked Ganymede, who shocked the other male suitors by revealing herself to be a woman in disguise (Rosalind from As You Like It). The scene was uproariously funny—the violently angry male chauvinist Macbeth character being a particular standout—and cleverly used Shakespearean comedy’s genderbending formula to offer a poignant critique of the representation of sexual norms in modern popular culture.

As a teacher and scholar of Shakespeare, the primary question I found myself asking throughout Battle of the Bard’s Final Bout was, “What does this program say about the value of Shakespeare today?” Every team offered a radically different (and totally fresh) perspective on his work and legacy. Even teams that presented similar content—like Prosser and Niles North, who both happened to perform the same scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lindblom and Elk Grove, who both drew on the recent Presidential debates—distinguished their work by advancing completely unique approaches to the same material. In the process, they did not merely articulate what is valuable about Shakespeare, but generated that value themselves. They used Shakespeare to examine their own multilingual and multicultural worlds—to work through very modern concerns in ways that made Shakespeare’s historically distant and rhetorically difficult language seem completely familiar and immediately relevant. During the course of the program, these Battlers of the Bard came not only to “own” the space of the stage, but also the larger cultural idea of “Shakespeare” himself. The result was astounding. This is what Shakespeare should be. This is what Shakespeare will be. And this, the students definitively demonstrated, is what Shakespeare is.


Rebecca Fall is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renaissance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her research has been supported by several nationally-competitive fellowships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.

Georges Bigot + Theatre Y – Macbeth

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Walking into the Chopin Theatre to attend a performance of Theatre Y’s Macbeth is a bit of a trip. In addition to the Scottish Play, the Chopin is currently home to a production of The Nutcracker, that family-friendly holiday classic. In keeping with The Nutcracker’s holiday theme, the lobby of the Chopin is decorated in ribbons, glitter, and evergreens for Christmas; when I arrived on the Friday after Election Day, the pleasant pop tones of the Jackson 5 Christmas Album floated through the lobby’s festive air. Amid all of this holiday cheer, though, was a prominent display covered in dripping blood to advertise Theatre Y’s Macbeth.

That audience members must walk through a dizzying Christmas scene to enter the dark black-box theater where Macbeth is being staged may amount to nothing more than a scheduling coincidence, but the resulting sense of cognitive dissonance perfectly matches Theatre Y’s disorientating take on Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. The product of a yearlong collaboration between Theatre Y’s independent, mission-driven company and French theater luminary Georges Bigot, this Macbeth imagines Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy as a surreal nightmare. Amplifying the text’s major themes—How do we know what we know? Can we trust our own senses? Are we in charge of our actions, or is control an illusion?—the production offers a deliberately “non-realist” take on the play that fundamentally blurs kitsch and high art, comedy and tragedy, audience and actor.

The play begins, of course, with witches. In this production, these three sisters are truly weird. They add substantially to the sense of unreality, of time out of place. As a spectator, it is difficult to know whether one is meant to laugh at them or cower in fear. They roar and screech and twist their bodies into unnatural shapes, but also dance flirtatiously to a doo-wop tune while displaying their bodies provocatively—for in a nod to Europe’s radical FEMEN activists, these witches appear nearly nude from the waist up. They wear bikini tops that reveal female symbols painted across their torsos (at the post-election performance I attended, the word “nasty” was scrawled across the ribs of one weird sister). Like members of FEMEN, though, these women expose their bodies not to entice but to terrify men. They wear sloppy cut-off jean shorts and long, unkempt hair that they gleefully twist across their chins into beards when Banquo insults their looks.

In Act 1, one of the witches is heavily pregnant, making it all the more shocking when she smears blood across her mouth and body. When the weird sisters reappear in Act 4, she has evidently delivered the pregnancy, signaling the “delivery” of Macbeth’s malevolent ambition into the world. In a horrifying parody of maternity, the witches in this act proceed to use a baby carriage as a cauldron in which they stew such ingredients as the “maw and gulf / Of the ravin’d sea-salt shark,” the “liver of a blaspheming Jew,” and the “finger of a birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab.” They take turns showing their “apparitions” to the increasingly desperate and violent Macbeth in this carriage-cauldron, thrusting pagan statues puppet-like out from under the pram’s bonnet and ventriloquizing them in voices that are alternately silly and scary. The confused combination of Halloween horror-kitsch, aggressive sexuality, twisted violence, and total unpredictability makes these witches all the more frightening—and advances the disorienting atmosphere that infuses the whole play.

The production further amplifies its sense of nightmarish unreality by conscripting the audience into the performance, framing the viewer not only as a participant in the play, but also as responsible for its outcome. While the performers do interact physically and verbally, acting out Macbeth’s political and interpersonal drama according to the dictates of language and plot, they deliver most (indeed, almost all) of their lines in the form of direct address to the audience. Accordingly, we as viewers are treated as complicit in the play’s bloody conspiracies and strange turns. Upon receiving her husband’s letter near the end of Act 1, for instance, Katie Stimpson’s captivating Lady Macbeth stretches luxuriously on her bed and speaks to the audience as if we are the absent Macbeth, staring directly into the eyes of the closest viewers to engender a powerful sense of intimacy. In the staging of the scene, we become her spousal co-conspirator. Yet when Macduff passes Malcolm’s test of loyalty, the prince speaks to the spectators, not his thane; instead of murderous conspirators, the audience become saviors of “good truth and honor.” By the end, it becomes difficult to discern if we spectators have been cast as heroes or enemies. We have, it seems, taken on both—even all—roles at once. Indeed, in the final battle scene, Macbeth and Macduff deliver not only their lines to the audience, but blows as well. Rather than battling each other, the two actors perform their fight choreography side by side, aiming each violent strike and every vengeful word at the crowd of viewers.

The feeling of being responsible for the play’s events but unable to respond—whether by talking back to Lady Macbeth or defending oneself from Macduff and Macbeth’s blows—augments the nightmarish unreality of the play as a whole. After all, if we cannot even be sure what role we play as mere audience-members, how can we trust anything we see, hear, or otherwise perceive? By means of this disorienting effect, Theatre Y and George Bigot’s production foregrounds one of Macbeth’s most unsettling questions. The play doubts not merely whether we can control the reality we live in, but whether we can identify what is “real” at all. Theatre Y refuses to give a straightforward answer either way, suggesting instead that there may be more power—if less comfort—in the asking.


Rebecca L. Fall is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renaissance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her research has been supported by several nationally-competitive fellowships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.

“Creating Shakespeare” at The Newberry Library

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The Newberry’s Creating Shakespeare exhibit offers visitors the rare opportunity to view the books, artifacts, posters, and drawings that visually constitute the man and the canon that we know as William Shakespeare. Arranged chronologically so that the visitor takes a virtual walk through time, surrounded by the material objects that signify first the man and his career in his own time, then his presence in the subsequent centuries, and finally in our own cultural present, the exhibit purports to explain how he is both “of an age and for all time,” whatever Jonson’s famous poetic rendering might claim. The first gallery sets out to demonstrate Shakespeare’s situation within a broader theatre industry, “of an age” in that he was one among many playwrights with whom he acted, collaborated, and competed. While no manuscript versions of Shakespeare’s promptbooks or plays are known to exist, the opening gallery features such items as a play manuscript by Ben Jonson and the diary of John Manningham, which gives a first-hand account of a performance of Twelfth Night as well as a (much debated) account of Shakespeare’s sexual exploits. This first gallery imagines and presents the early modern London of which Shakespeare was but a part, emphasizing the world that created the man.

After this initial gallery, the visitor continues into a room entirely devoted to the history of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in print, performance, and illustration. First-edition quartos, playbills, comic books, and sculptures all pay tribute to the historical constitution of what is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play. The Cranach Press illustrated Hamlet, in particular, is a true privilege to view. The collection is impressive in its size and scope, to be sure. And yet, it is somewhat jarring in its devotion to one piece of work in an exhibit that seeks to situate Shakespeare in historical and cultural context rather than as a brilliant and solitary author who exists in a kind of timeless continuum. For example, an 1830 playbill included in the Hamlet collection also advertises performances of Macbeth and Julius Caesar later in the same week, which the exhibit passes over in its description of the artifact. Similarly, a small display on Sir John Falstaff tells the visitor that he has the second most lines of any Shakespeare character and appears in three plays, and that his likeness has been used throughout history for both artistic and political purposes, and yet he is afforded a single half-wall while Hamlet has an entire room. Ira Aldridge, who made a career for himself as a black man on the London stage in the early nineteenth century, most famously in Othello, which the exhibit informs the visitor was “one of the most performed plays since the Restoration,” is paradoxically given a single wall panel, while David Garrick’s Romeo and Juliet, “performed more than any other play during the eighteenth century,” is similarly given a single panel.

The issue raised by a gallery entirely devoted to Hamlet is that Hamlet is the play which theatergoers and Newberry visitors alike can almost universally name when they think of Shakespeare. Hamlet, that work of psychological genius, is nearly synonymous with the notion of Shakespeare as solitary and eternal artist which the exhibit claims to eschew in its opening statement. It strikes one as a bit disingenuous to establish Shakespeare as “of an age,” a collaborator in a rich and thriving theater industry, in the first gallery, and then immediately reinforce the commonly held notion that he was exceptional in this second gallery. It is true that Hamlet has had a long and prosperous life on stage and page, but so have many, many more of Shakespeare’s works, as the Newberry itself concedes in other places throughout the exhibit. The dichotomy between intentional author and social collaborator has been a polemical one in academia for at least the last century or so, and it is therefore a bit disconcerting how the exhibit straddles the fence on this issue.

However, across the lobby, the exhibit returns the visitor to the spirit of Shakespeare’s work as continually reconstituted and re-appropriated, even as it was in his own time. The final gallery brings the visitor into the late nineteenth and twentieth century, emphasizing the all-important performance and visual aspects of Shakespeare’s art. The gallery is bursting with color, featuring theater posters, advertisements, and even the actual costume worn by Edwin Booth in his portrayal of Iago, fitted on a mannequin. There are editions of mid-twentieth century comic book versions of plays, aimed at a young male audience, musical scores for operas and adaptations of various works, paintings, a beautifully gilded illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s own recipe for stage blood. The emphasis is all on visualizing Shakespeare and the life of his works in the modern theater, and it succeeds in demonstrating the scale and value of the spectacle.

But does this modernized Shakespeare come at a cost? What is lost when we begin to commercialize the Bard? If the nineteenth and twentieth century attempts to re-appropriate Shakespeare seem to have one common goal, it is to make money using his image and his creations. Some of the artifacts the visitor encounters do so explicitly; a Budweiser advertisement from 1908 features Shakespeare’s portrait, and another ad tells us that the 1949 Ford is “a midsummer night’s dream!” But there is also the more implicit sense that the avant garde stagings, the illustrated books, and the operas and musical versions of his plays have the true purpose of boosting ticket sales and actors’ careers, rather than any real commitment to artistic expression. It is a fine line, but what is most apparent is the burgeoning of the “Shakespeare industrial complex,” the notion that our modern culture both constitutes and capitalizes on Shakespeare and his works even as it holds him up as an artistic genius.

But is there anything inherently wrong with this? As long as we acknowledge that we are appropriating Shakespeare for both artistic and commercial reasons, rather than hiding behind abstract or academic pretensions, perhaps this kind of cultural capitalization of the Bard is truer to his memory than anything else. It is, after all, how Shakespeare approached his own work. The Newberry’s exhibit thus takes the visitor full-circle, back to the emerging theater industry of sixteenth-century London. The creating Shakespeare, that is, the man who created the plays, in his coupling of artistic and economic goals, was not so different from the industry that is perpetually creating him. In this sense, the exhibit captures both the material remnants and the profit-driven, artistically inspired essence of the man and his works, four hundred years later.


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.

Chicago Opera Theater – The Fairy Queen

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The good news about Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at the Studebaker Theater, November 5, 11, and 13, 2016, is that the company continues to employ talented youngish singers not generally yet well recognized in a series of operatic works not often encountered in the standard operatic repertory, like Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, 1688, Handel’s  Semele, 1743, Verdi’s Joan of Arc, 1845, Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki,  1958-9, and Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, 1973. This is an admirable achievement. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen belongs in that very interesting list of less well-known operas.

The current production is in fact a double adaptation, since the show first appeared in 1692 at the Queen’s Theatre in London as a spectacular reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented as a masque with music by Purcell composed to honor the fifteenth wedding anniversary of King William and Queen Mary and presided over at its conclusion by Hymen, the God of Marriage. Its cast contained a stuttering, drunken poet, along with allegorical figures like Night, Mystery, Secrecy and Sleep. Its many songs and choruses celebrated the Four Seasons, complaints of disappointed love, marital bliss, and the delights of the countryside. The current adaptation by Chicago Opera Theater brings the work up to date by setting it in “Club FQ” in Las Vegas, complete with pole girls, a well-equipped bar, sofas for comfortable love-making, and a dance floor.

The soloists and chorus sing admirably in this current production.  The music itself is glorious. The Haymarket Orchestra, under the direction of Jory Vinikour and with Jeri-Lou Zike as concertmaster and Craig Trumpener as principal cellist, plays impeccably, as it always does, and remains generally faithful to Purcell’s score. The supertitles are clear and helpful, even if occasionally miscued and out of synch.  My wife Peggy and I were glad to be there to help congratulate the Studebaker Theater  in the Fine Arts Building on its tasteful restoration.

The not-so-good news is that the staging, as adapted by Culture Clash and Andreas Mitisek, is woefully unresponsive to Purcell’s musical score and to Shakespeare’s play. The adapters claim that the 1692  staging was intentionally vulgar and that their current production continues this irreverent line. The 1692 adaptation, I would insist, was daring and sensual, but it was not vulgar. This one today is. It turns erotic lyricism into pornography. When Puck (Marc  Molomot), the sleazy pimp of this Los Vegas nightclub, pronounces its name presiding over the show in purplish neon lights as “Club FQ,” it sounds like “Club F**k You.” The stage action incessantly simulates heterosexual and homosexual coupling, fellatio, cunnilingus, buggery, sado-masochism, anal penetration, and whatever else you care to imagine. This is supposed to be funny, and I did hear some giggling, but I also saw quite a few empty seats for the second act after the intermission.  Shakes, The Poet (Roberto Gomez), shows up a loudmouthed drunk asking members of the audience to help him find his car keys which he thinks he must have dropped from one of the balconies.  The production is a field day for LGTBQ, assisted cleverly enough by the fact that some of the male singing parts in the Purcell score are falsetto, so that the beloved of Lysander (Ryan Belongie) turns out to be not Hermia as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but Herman (Darryl Taylor).

Not surprisingly, the love potion of Shakespeare’s play turns out to be LSD, or speed, or heroin. I say “not surprisingly,” since in all the productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have seen in the last thirty years, the love potion is invariably a mind-altering drug of Central American ancestry. The idea is hoary with age by now, as is the sexual humor throughout this current production.  I generally like adaptations, but this one is heavy-handed, repetitious, obvious, trivial, and ultimately cynical. Love is promiscuity.

The friends with whom I chatted during the intermission were pretty uniformly of this opinion, that the staging overshoots its mark.  And I think it’s fair to say that we wish COT would stop doing this.


David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and comparative literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence:  Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.

one step at a time like this – undreamed shores

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On a hot summer night a couple of years ago, I arrived at a certain designated corner in the Loop and waited. After a few minutes my phone rang and the caller spoke to me by name even though we had never met. She patiently guided me down the street until suddenly the doors of the grand Cadillac Palace Theater, which I happened to be passing, were swung open to me and I was ushered inside its vast, empty lobby. There a woman in an evening gown descended the staircase and sat beside me to explain how to work the special smart phone she gave me as a guide through the rest of my evening. From that point on, the city opened to me in the most remarkable ways as I moved through it: People emerged from alleyways and crevices between buildings to give me secret messages. In a luxury high-rise apartment I found myself climbing into bed with an anonymous stranger. I was driven, blindfolded, down Lower Wacker and through downtown and when the blindfold was removed I found that I was on the stage of another grand historic theater, dozens of blocks from the one where I’d started, with blinding stage lights glaring down on me. This was Since I Suppose, an immersive audio and video tour of downtown Chicago based loosely on Measure for Measure, which was created by the Australian company one step at a time like this, and commissioned by and developed with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions in 2014.

So when I arrived at Navy Pier on a cold and windy afternoon not long ago for the newest audio-guided tour from one step at a time like this, undreamed shores, I was ready for Navy Pier to similarly come alive once I put my headphones on and started walking. But undreamed shores was a decidedly more atmospheric and solitary affair, a moody wander for one in which, as the sole audience member, I was encouraged to pretend that the people around me were not really there and to move through a world inhabited only by myself and the disembodied voices in my headphones. There was a twinge of disappointment when I realized the pier was not going to become a responsive, immersive, fictional world the way the Loop had two years earlier. I imagined being beckoned onto a gondola as I approached the Ferris wheel and being lifted into the sky. I hoped, as the audio track instructed me to pause near the entrance to a seafood restaurant, that I might be invited in for a specially prepared amuse-bouche. I wondered, as I approached the doors of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, if they would be flung open to me for a special command performance for one in the Courtyard Theater. But none of that happened. Navy Pier had not been stocked with carefully planned encounters and surprises, it remained itself, a place to be discovered and observed as it is. This made for a more furtive and subdued, though perhaps no less strange, experience. Instead of riding the Ferris wheel, I was instructed to lie down on a ledge beneath it and look up at it turning against an ominous sky while the voice in my ear talked to me about the mechanics of the universe.

I remembered then that some of the most effective moments in Since I Suppose had occurred just between myself, the soundtrack, and the city: a pause on a bridge over the Chicago River as music swelled in my ears; the view from a rooftop poolside balcony of fireworks going off over the lake across downtown, tiny but visible; collaged fragments from Measure for Measure enveloping me as I walked down the street. These quiet, reflective, essentially internal moments, when the strategically composed audio overlaid and altered the ordinary environment, recruiting the city into a private and subjective spectacle, best made the case for the unique potential of the immersive audio tour, or sound walk, as a theatrical form. undreamed shores was made up of such moments. Framed simply as a journey down Navy Pier, it comprised a series of opportunities to notice the pier and its environs, including parts of it one might never visit – lovely and decidedly unlovely, both. What each lone audience member made of that journey was ultimately up to each of us. “Take your time,” the person who had handed me the headset at the beginning of undreamed shores had told me, “whatever that means to you.”

Even though it took an abstract, fragmentary approach, Since I Suppose had Measure for Measure as a structure and reference point, but the structural device for undreamed shores was markedly less well defined. Its themes and ideas washed over me along the journey like the concept of water that vaguely flowed through the piece. The voices guiding me wanted me to think about the pier itself, particularly its history at almost 100 years old, and about the city that surrounds it, and about the relationship of that city to the lake it sits beside. And they also wanted me to think about Shakespeare and his time 400 years ago, and how people then thought about the world and bodies of water and the universe and death. And still more, they wanted me to think about aquatic ecosystems, and pollution, and climate change, and the loss of sea life, and the environmental changes evidenced by the water. They wanted me to think about all of these things together – mortality and longevity and relative lengths of time. A walk down the pier of an hour or so is vanishingly brief from this perspective, but it is nonetheless time passing, just as the years that make up my life are time passing, or the 100 years since Navy Pier was built, or the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, or the 14,000 years since the lake was ice, are all passages of time at the end of which we are each located. When was a long time ago? Before I was born? When the pier was built? When Shakespeare lived? The last Ice Age? And when is a long time from now? What will this all be like then?

It was difficult to put my finger on any of this, though, as I climbed stairs, rode elevators, walked through closed doors, lay down on benches, and gazed out windows. Philosophical musings on facts about the lake, the pier, the city, Shakespeare, and the environment paired with snippets from Shakespeare’s plays — some about water, some about death, some about cities — floated in one ear and out the other. There was a lot from The Tempest, unsurprisingly, though surprisingly not only about water and islands and shipwrecks, plenty of love and death, too; the description of Ophelia drowning from Hamlet, of course; and the chorus in Henry V envisaging the sails of ships as a city on the sea; but there was also Macbeth at his metatheatrical bleakest. The quotes were tossed in incidentally, riffing tangentially on a particular nearby feature – window, city, ship – as much atmosphere as anything else. Sometimes they washed over me, at other times one hit and stuck, capturing something meaningful between the physical place and my subjective headspace. But the factoids and Shakespeare snippets hardly seemed to be the point.

The point was that the point was the journey. Emerging onto the north side of the pier midway through the tour, I was guided to a particular bollard and instructed to tie a bit of rope I found in an envelope I had discovered secreted in a little mailbox on top of the parking garage half an hour earlier to the chain running along the water. I tied it beside all the other lengths of rope tied there by each successive audience of one who had made their way along the pier before me. I paused and looked down at the water. There was no significance to this sequence of actions other than having gotten to the same point as everyone who had come before me. I found something one place and I left it another, where I saw evidence that others had been there and had done the same thing. Now someone else would come along and tie their length of rope next to mine. No need for a narrative or metaphor, this was life being lived, making connections and hitting milestones and seeing evidence that I am in the world with others, some of whom have gone before me, and doubtless some who will come after. And because I took this journey and was curious and attentive and followed signposts and the advice of those who showed up to guide me along the way, I found many things I otherwise would not have, and saw things that I did not expect to see.

By the time I reached the very end of the pier, I did feel as if I had been on a journey. It was not exactly strenuous, but I had been in motion almost the whole time (I found myself aware of the privilege of having a relatively able body – there were many places where someone with impaired mobility would not have been able to go, and no alternatives were offered.) Reaching the end, I got to sit down and rest and look out at the lake, reflecting on where I was and where I had been. It helped that in many ways I had literally gone back in time, from the shiny new and getting newer layers of redesign and renovation on the west end of Navy Pier to the east end, where the solid brick buildings remain seemingly unchanged from the pier’s original construction almost 100 years ago. It was a cold and blustery afternoon, and the benches at the end of the pier were empty except for me, and the bronze statue of Bob Newhart (check it out!) In the ballroom just behind me, though, an elaborate graduation ceremony for new firefighters happened to be taking place, and young people dressed for the special occasion hurried in and out of the hall, eager to see their loved ones embark on a grand new adventure. Excitement was in the air as the sky darkened and the ballroom emanated the kind of golden light that made me think of wintertime parties, flushed cheeks, warmth from food and drink and dancing, pleasures that could have been indulged at anytime during the pier’s 100-year history.

I had reached the end of my journey. I sat on my bench and looked out at the grey expanse of lake and sky and listened as the voices that had guided me all that way asked me to imagine myself, the pier, the lake, the world 100, then 400, years from now. What would still be here? The pier? The city? The birds? The lake? I felt myself fading into insignificance, just a blip on the horizon of all that time passing, a brief jaunt down a short pier, before their voices stopped. I remembered the advice to “take my time” with which I had begun and, as I sat there, looking out at the lake, I felt that was exactly what I was doing, taking time — this time, the only time I had. I remained there, even after I had pulled the headset off and someone had come by to collect it, even after undreamed shores had ended I remained there for just a little while longer, taking my time.


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..

Joffrey Ballet – Romeo & Juliet

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It has not been long since the Joffrey Ballet last staged Krzysztof Pastor’s unapologetically modern take on Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet. Pastor’s production saw its U.S. premiere at the Joffrey only two years ago, in 2014. Yet, in a year of great divides—not least among them, a U.S. election cycle of unprecedented partisan hostility, the Brexit vote, and the large-scale displacement of refugee populations around the world—this Romeo and Juliet seems to be a particularly appropriate production to revive. Pastor’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s score boils both down to one core theme: the devastating conflict between individual feeling and group authority. In exploring this theme, the ballet twists the logic of time itself, stretching one brief moment of love across a century of conflict.

Act One takes place in Italy in the 1930s. As the act begins, devastating video footage from World War II is projected onto the painted streetscape that serves a backdrop throughout the performance. Lord Capulet, a Mussolini-like dictator clad all in black, evidently runs Verona with an iron fist. The Montagues, wearing white, amount less to a rival family and function more as a rival ideological community: a democratic-minded populace suffering under Capulet’s fascist rule. Capulet’s absolute control is borne out in his treatment of staff and family: he manhandles Juliet at the ball and directs his guests’ movement with military precision. The music here, particularly the score’s famously sinister “Dance of the Knights,” amplifies his dominance. Pastor’s choreography for this dance is angular and muscular, exuding strength and control; it is all the more imposing in the hands of Fabrice Calmels’s 6’7” Lord Capulet.

Romeo and Juliet romance each other at the ball, but their connection is hardly secret. Lord Capulet takes pains to keep them physically separated while maintaining order among his guests. Eventually, the lovers steal away to meet in private for the famous balcony scene—here set in a mirrored elevator that gives us several Juliets in reflection, suggesting that this young lover represents many others. Even during this intimate scene, though, the lovers are not alone. As they dance an ecstatic pas de deux, other dancers hover silently at the back of the stage. Much as Romeo and Juliet would like to imagine the possibility, the scene implies, they will never inhabit a world to themselves; they remain very much in the world of their families, a world of violence and social control. As their dance comes to an end, the bulk of the cast reemerges onto the stage to surround the lovers before dividing again into their pre-existing factions.

While taking place in the same location and involving the same characters, Act Two is set in the 1950s. The Capulets evidently remain an influential family in town, but the Montagues have come to dominate Verona. It’s a time of freedom, commerce, and the dolce vita. Video footage at the beginning of the act shows happy, midcentury Italians eating gelato and smiling. The streetscape backdrop is updated to include rows of Vespa scooters, and the stark black and white of the lighting and costuming gives way to warm sepia color tones. But deadly conflict still dominates life in Verona: Lord Capulet, surrounded by foot soldiers, urges the younger generation to fight, egging on the quarrel between Tybalt and Mercutio that will leave both dead. When the fight begins to wane, he presses a knife into Tybalt’s hand and directs him to stab Mercutio in the back. The appalled Montagues pressure Romeo to take vengeance, and he murders Tybalt under the eye—and approval—of his community.

Act Three opens to projected footage of car bombs and terrorist attacks. Set in the 1990s under the Berlusconi government, the color has cooled to a bloodless, icy blue. The cold, watery lighting feels appropriate when Capulet forces Juliet to dance for a group of suitors, then demands she choose one to marry. The score here swells and sways, evoking the sensation of being trapped under a cycle of crushing ocean waves.

It is this sensation of being dragged along—even crushed—by an overwhelming force that characterizes the whole of Pastor’s ballet. Romeo and Juliet try in vain to defy the fates that their families have determined for them and create a new world of possibilities, but their efforts are doomed to failure. In a heartbreaking final scene, Juliet awakes in her tomb to find Romeo dead beside her and attempts to revive him through dance. She tries to drag him around the stage, to coax his corpse back to life with her own movement. There is no hope, though, and no possibility to make a new life. In the end, she wraps Romeo’s lifeless hand around a knife and uses it to stab herself in a gesture that recalls Lord Capulet’s physical control over her body in earlier scenes. At last, her life ends not with a bang but a whimper. In a score otherwise characterized by imposing motifs, full-throated strings, and dissonant brass, Juliet dies to the sound of a tremolo pianissimo. Afterwards, nothing changes. The Montagues and Capulets return to the stage to find the dead lovers, and in a moment reminiscent of the balcony scene’s ominous end, carry away the two bodies separately, without acknowledging each other at all. There is no reconciliation in this Romeo and Juliet, no “statue[s] in pure gold” raised in tribute to the tragic couple, no unifying “talk of these sad things.” The rest is silence.

Pastor’s is a deeply pessimistic—and deeply moving—Romeo and Juliet. The couple’s love transcends decades, generations, and governments. But so does the violent enmity between their two houses. Even in death, Romeo and Juliet cannot escape control by their families or the community. They may bend time itself, but cannot break the authority of the society that has made them.


Rebecca Fall is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renaissance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her research has been supported by several nationally-competitive fellowships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.