Theater Zuidpool – Macbeth


Zuidpool’s Macbeth begins with a witches’ song. Six performers, stylishly dressed in black and white, approach a collection of instruments and microphones. A droning harmonium, feedback, sampled loops, and jagged percussion frame Femke Heijens’s ethereal opening lines: “All hail, Macbeth!” After several repetitions, the tempo increases, and the song shifts into a chanted chorus of “Thou shalt be king hereafter!” punctuated by chilling witch cackles.

Framed by the elegantly decaying proscenium of the stage at Thalia Hall, set in front of the graffitied brick of the backstage wall, and drenched in red lighting, the show opens very much like a rock concert. The sometimes-sung, sometimes-spoken language of Shakespeare’s play feels at home in the musical setting. Like mashup of Macbeth and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the play becomes the story of an ambitious singer/warrior/king confronting the tragic costs of his success.

The production’s compression of the text supports this reading, as all peripheral plot is cut away. Macbeth’s story—his ambition, his isolation, his horror—is elevated here. An audience member unacquainted with Shakespeare’s play certainly couldn’t follow the nuances of the Scottish royal succession, and even Lady Macbeth is reduced to a supporting character. Instead, Macbeth’s experiences, his inner word and external expressions, are heightened through the words, the sounds, and the images of this production. We are offered a visceral experience of his descent into madness.

Theater Zuidpool, a Belgian theater company with a reputation for formal experimentation, offers a version of Macbeth that deliberately blurs the boundaries between theater and rock concert. Their version of the play was adapted by the company and features a score composed by Mauro Pawlowski and Tijs Delbeke, members of the Antwerp rock music scene. The production skillfully balances music and text, but the eclectic music played by the cast and featuring diverse instruments and influences, carries the show.

Jorgen Cassier plays Macbeth as a man too much in his own mind. For the first half of the performance, he is tightly wound, contemplative, and controlled, a spring under tension. He grapples with his ambition, the witches’ prophecy, and his wife’s prodding. The show’s concert concept effectively highlights Macbeths’ isolation as Cassier delivers his lines into a standing microphone directly to the audience. He does not physically engage with the other characters; his voice is mediated by the technology and the space at the front of the stage. His Macbeth is tormented and very alone.

A turning point comes when Wouter “Koen” Van Kaam perfomers the Porter’s song as a creepy honky-tonk, late-night revelry. Playing a banjo and accompanied by harmonica, fiddle, and acoustic guitar. Van Kaam conjures Tom Waits as he growls a repeated “Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there?” The song is played with a mixture of comedy and horror, and it stands out as a light moment in a very dark show. The darkness quickly returns at the end of the song, though, as Heijens voices Macduff’s horrified and enraged discovery of Duncan’s murder and stabs of electric guitar feedback replace the banjo plucking.

After this song, Macbeth’s slow descent into madness becomes a sprint. Cassier’s coiled spring explodes as the play becomes louder, faster, and even more focused on his isolated character. While we wait for the Great Birnam wood to march against Macbeth, the music relies more heavily on electric guitar and bass, feedback, percussion, and sharp strings, echoes of the Velvet Underground’s early sonic assaults, sludgy contemporary heavy metal, and even thudding Euro dance music as Banquo haunts the banquet. And more lines are shouted, screamed, and shrieked.  This is a very loud show. The sound becomes physical. Only when Macbeth dies does the noise quiet and the play end.

By the time Macbeth despairs that life “is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” it sounds like a mission statement, or a confession. Zuipool’s Macbeth is undeniably full of sound and fury. The question is, what does it signify? The production gives us a glimpse of the tempest in the title character’s psychology and his soul. And it asks us to experience it, emotionally and physically, through the music. It’s an exhausting experience, but it feels true to Shakespeare’s play. Throughout the show, a red emergency “EXIT” sign hung above a door in the backstage wall, complementing the show’s lighting design and providing commentary on the action. We want Macbeth to find a way out of his tragedy, but for the character, and for the audience, there is no escape.

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

“Creating Shakespeare” at The Newberry Library


Recently, I sat down to talk with Jill Gage, Bibliographer for British Literature and History at the Newberry Library. She has also recently succeeded Paul Gehl as Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing. Dr. Gage and I discussed “Creating Shakespeare,” an exhibition she is currently curating and which will be free and open to the public at the Newberry beginning on September 23rd. A digest of our conversation appears below as a preview; for more information on this upcoming Shakespeare 400 Chicago event, click here. 

ASK: To begin, could you tell me a little bit about your background in the world of librarianship? What brought you to the Newberry?

JG: I’ve never worked anywhere other than the Newberry Library. I started here as intern while I was in library school, doing my MA in Library Science and my MA in English simultaneously, and when I finished, the Newberry created a job for me. In 2010, I went back to school to get my PhD at the University of London, specializing in eighteenth-century English literature. Now, I do all of the antiquarian acquisitions for the fields of British literature and history, and I’m the subject specialist as well, which is how I ended up being the curator of the Newberry’s Shakespeare exhibition.

ASK: I think this leads us into the exhibit. We’re here in the midst of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and there are hundreds of events going on all over the city for Shakespeare 400 Chicago. Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been doing?

JG: We started working on the exhibit in 2012. I’m not by training a Shakespearean scholar, but I do know the Newberry’s collections, and this was an opportunity to think about what we have and what we might offer.

I started out by typing the word “Shakespeare” into our catalog, and it grew from there. We’ve decided to call the exhibit “Creating Shakespeare” because the story of Shakespeare’s survival has actually very little to do with Shakespeare himself, or at least that’s one way of thinking about it. We have the First Folio, without which he might have slipped into obscurity; but then, starting in the late seventeenth century, many others have shaped Shakespeare and created Shakespeare in ways that are new for each successive generation. That’s the really interesting story for me.

The hard thing about the exhibition is that there are endless ways of thinking about Shakespeare. Honestly, the Newberry’s strongest collection of Shakespeare materials is seventeenth-century materials, and I’d love to do an exhibit of just those items, but one of my jobs as a curator and librarian is to think broadly. I’ve tried to invite people who look at the exhibition to think, “I didn’t know anything like that existed,” or, “I didn’t know the Newberry had that.” This way, visitors who aren’t as interested in the quartos or the First Folio might be struck by nineteenth-century sheet music, newspapers, or a radio play.

ASK: Can you tell us a few things about what sort of items will be in the exhibition? What can we look forward to? I’m aware that some of the items on display will be coming from places beyond the Newberry as well.

JG: Yes. We are borrowing from the British Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as four private collectors.

The British Library is sending four manuscripts and the 1603 first quarto of Hamlet, which is one of only two known copies. This book has been called a “bad quarto” because it’s so different from the later editions; it’s much shorter than the second quarto, many of the speeches are rearranged, and it has unique stage directions. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about what this “bad quarto” is, and whether it is actually “bad” – it could be an adaptation from the stage, or a memorial reconstruction by actors who were in the play. I think it’s really a perfect object to include, since it gives us a window into all the people who created Shakespeare and how Shakespeare has been mediated and created by other people from the beginning.

We’re also borrowing the John Manningham diary from the British Library. Manningham was a seventeenth-century law student who kept very gossipy notebooks, and he recorded seeing a production of Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple. It reminds him of The Comedy of Errors, and his favorite scene is when Malvolio reads Maria’s letter. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, we’re borrowing a lot of theatrical materials, including David Garrick’s promptbook for Hamlet and an Edmund Booth costume from the nineteenth century.

ASK: Those seem like fantastic items. To take a step back: how, to your mind, will “Creating Shakespeare” fit into the broader landscape of events and performances around the city celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare?

JG: Shakespeare 400 Chicago is a wonderful, groundbreaking effort that Chicago Shakespeare Theater has coordinated with so many other cultural institutions, and the Newberry’s role is to help provide the historical background. We have a Chicago-specific section in the exhibit, beginning in the 1860s. And, in fact, that section includes the one thing I cannot tell you about, which is going to be the most blockbuster thing of all.

But “Creating Shakespeare” is a process that is ongoing; it’s still happening, and it’s going to be happening in the future. Our programming around the exhibit really fits in with celebrating the way our collections have been used by scholars and artists within the local community. We do have three scholars, James Shapiro, Peter Holland, and Coppélia Kahn, who will give traditional talks. They’ll all be great, but we really wanted to celebrate performance in Chicago, too. We don’t want to be seen as the ivory tower part of it; I think the programming is actually an integral part of the exhibition.

ASK: Here’s a final question that sums up some of what we’ve been talking about. Simply put, what does Shakespeare mean to you, as a curator, researcher, and librarian?

JG: There’s something about Shakespeare that ties us all together, which I find quite poignant. Not that much that we share stretches from 1616 to 2016. 400 years of people have read or seen Shakespeare and somehow been inspired, whether that means cutting out all the sad parts, or making illustrations of Falstaff. I think that idea of inspiration, of creativity, is fascinating.

Andrew S. Keener is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he researches drama, literary translation and the publication and use of bilingual dictionaries and grammar books in Renaissance England. He also has interests in rare book exhibit curation and computational approaches to language and literature. He holds an MA in English from North Carolina State University and a BA in English from Boston College. Read more about Andrew…

Shakespeare’s Globe – The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice is an Elizabethan romantic comedy that time and changing mores, especially attitudes towards Jews and a post-Holocaust abhorrence of anti-Semitism, have transformed into a modern dark tragicomedy. Shylock, the comic blocking figure who, like Hermia’s father in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stands in the way of young lovers, has become in most productions of The Merchant of Venice the play’s tragic protagonist.

In the Elizabethan romantic comedy, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and her Christian lover, Lorenzo, must circumvent the old usurer in order to marry; and before Portia and Bassanio and Nerissa and Gratiano may consummate their marriages, Portia in a thrilling cross-dressed performance as a brilliant young lawyer must save Bassanio’s friend, Antonio, from Shylock’s murderous attempt on his life. She succeeds in a last-minute courtroom tour de force that uses Shylock’s legalism against him: if in taking his contractual pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast, Shylock spills a drop of blood or takes even slightly more or less than a pound, his own life is forfeit. Defeated and then “generously” ordered by Antonio and the Duke of Venice to convert to Christianity, thereby saving his life and his soul, Shylock leaves the stage to the lovers for the play’s idyllic and humorous final act.

The modern darkly tragicomic Merchant of Venice gives us instead a sympathetic Shylock abused by Christians, especially Antonio, abandoned and robbed by his only child, and fighting back in the only way he can in an environment of intense and pervasive anti-Semitism: that is, by insisting on a strict interpretation of the law of contracts that Venice must uphold or risk losing its position as the most important commercial power in the Mediterranean. In this version, Portia’s cunning interpretation of the relevant legal statute deflates Shylock’s businessman’s belief in the law of commerce, while the order for his forced conversion destroys his sense of identity as a Jew and as a human being.

Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jonathan Munby and one of several international shows visiting Chicago Shakespeare Theater during this quatercentenary year, does the best job of balancing the Elizabethan romantic comedy and the modern tragicomedy of any production I have seen. After almost half a century I still vividly remember Laurence Olivier’s acutely intelligent and heart-breaking Shylock in a production directed by Jonathan Miller that was marked by the anti-Semitism of all of its Christian characters. But by focusing on the tragedy of Shylock and allowing the Christians no redeeming features, this production, brilliant and groundbreaking as it was, lost some of what is or can still be delightful in the play’s romantic comedy.

Jonathan Munby’s Merchant, by contrast, gave to every character his or her due. There was no attempt to gain extra sympathy for Shylock by sentimentalizing his relationship with his daughter–at their first appearance together they were quarreling in Yiddish. And the Christian characters were a more morally mixed and nuanced bunch than in some productions I have seen.  While excoriating anti-Semitism, Munby also presented the more complex and perhaps uncomfortable truth that idealism and intolerance, decency and bigotry, can exist in the same person and that being an outsider oneself (Antonio as homosexual) need not grant one compassion for another kind of outsider.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s stage was dressed to evoke rather than precisely imitate Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where Munby’s production originated. Dark curtains covered the back wall; simple tables, chairs, and plinths were brought on as needed; actors entered through a large central opening, from the sides, and through the audience. The permanent architectural features, as in Shakespeare’s Globe, were two tall pillars, whose capitals were lit up to resemble gold in the Belmont scenes. The period costumes also emphasized the contrast between Venice and Belmont. The Venetians wore dull colors highlighted by red; in Belmont blonde heiress Portia wore gold, and Bassanio and Jessica, too, exchanged their drab Venetian clothes for golden ones in Belmont. Sixteenth-century Italy was evoked, too, by bursts of Italian music and pleasing Italian songs that punctuated the production and provided a basis for Lorenzo’s beautiful invocation of the power of music in act five.

The production opened with a noisy carnival scene that was already underway as the audience took their seats. This prologue set the tone for the action to come as the good-natured jollity of maskers, musicians, and courtesans gave way to a violent, unprovoked attack on two Jews as they crossed the stage.

In keeping with the spirit of performance at Shakespeare’s Globe, the actors in the prologue and in the play proper interacted with the audience. In particular, Launcelot (an engaging Stefan Adegbola) brought up onto the stage members of the audience to play the “fiend” and his “conscience” as he debated leaving Shylock’s service. At the performance I attended (August 14), the first “fiend” (a local Shakespearean perhaps?) to the great amusement of the audience left the stage at the line “use your legs,” and a second had to be recruited. At other times actors drew the audience into their world by referring to particular spectators. Most interestingly, Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) spoke his early asides to the audience, at those moments incorporating all of us as fellow Jews in an anti-Semitic society.

The Christians in Munby’s production were not uniformly anti-Semitic. I have seen worse: for example, the vicious Venetians of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s ‘s 2005 production, which featured Mike Nussbaum as Shylock. Most virulent of Munby’s Christians were Antonio (Dominic Mafham) and Gratiano (Jolyon Coy). Antonio was initially a sympathetic and dignified figure in his impossible but generous love for Bassanio. When Solanio (Raj Bajaj) asked him if he was sad because he was in love, Mafham’s vehement “Fie” spoke volumes about the pain of keeping his feelings private. But in his interactions with Shylock, this Antonio was exceptionally brutal, verbally and physically, and when finally he shook Shylock’s hand to seal their bargain, he immediately wiped his own on his garment. Gratiano, immoderate in all things–he first entered the stage in the process of throwing up and later was accused of fathering a baby–, equally displayed mean-spiritedness, not only baiting Shylock during the trial but also attempting–through gestural interjections–to dissuade Lorenzo from marrying Jessica.

To his credit, Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), while clearly one of the boys, stood up for his love for Jessica with some spirit. Allowing Lorenzo this grace paid off in the last act when Shakespeare gives this young lover the most beautiful lines in the play about the loveliness of the starry night and the harmony of the music of the spheres: “Such harmony is in immortal souls.” In the Olivier production, the moment had to be subverted in keeping with the general degradation of the Christians–the foppish Lorenzo carefully put his handkerchief on the ground for himself to sit on. Apollo’s Lorenzo put his jacket on the ground for Jessica. All the difference in the world. And an exquisite moment was preserved.

The most decent of the Christians was Dan Fredenburgh’s Bassanio, the most likeable Bassanio I can remember. Unlike Antonio, whose excess he attempted to restrain, Bassanio did not wipe his hand after shaking Shylock’s (admittedly a low bar). Despite his impecuniousness, he did not play Antonio, instead gently deflecting an attempted kiss on the lips, and he appeared truly to love Portia, not only her money.

Though more acerbic than her Bassanio, Rachel Pickup offered a somewhat nuanced portrait of Portia. The audience could sympathize enough with her wit and charm and her beautifully spoken love for Bassanio to enjoy the romance of the caskets plot while cringing at her racial prejudice towards the Prince of Morocco and later Jessica. The choice to make Morocco (a character whose eloquence has encouraged critics to see him as a trial-run for Othello) as ridiculous as the Prince of Aragon somewhat mitigated the bad taste left by Portia’s racist abhorrence of this suitor. Both Giles Terera as Morocco and Christopher Logan as Aragon gave highly entertaining over-the-top performances of cultural stereotypes that brought the house down, leaving one to wonder perhaps whether it is, after all, any more acceptable to mock Spaniards (or Dutchmen or Englishmen, like Portia’s other undesirable but unseen suitors) than Africans.

Portia was least sympathetic in her offhand attitude to Jessica. Both she and Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) repeatedly had difficulty remembering Jessica’s name (in the manner established by Joan Plowright’s Portia in Olivier’s production). And at one point Portia handed Jessica her wine glass as if she were a servant. In the court scene Portia really did not figure out how to save Antonio until the last possible moment, making this well-known episode something of a nail-biter. But though perhaps less calculating than some Portias in this respect, Pickup was nasty enough in her put-down of Shylock.

The show belonged to Shylock–and to a greater extent than is usual to Jessica. Advance publicity prepared audiences for this focus by foregrounding the real-life father-daughter relationship between Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock and Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica. Maintaining his precarious masculine dignity through a harsh self-sufficiency, Pryce’s Shylock was as passionately prejudiced against Christians as they were against Jews, obviously with more cause. But though he intended retribution from the beginning in proposing the “merry sport” of his contract with Antonio, the savagery of his revenge was primed by his daughter’s elopement with a Christian. Expecting to triumph in the court of law, Shylock was instead humiliated by Portia, who reduced this strong, passionate individual to a frail old man–“I am not well”–and eviscerated him, body and soul.

The keynote figure in Munby’s production was actually Jessica rather than Shylock. The audience apprehended Jewish experience in an anti-Semitic society through Jessica’s attempts to engage with Venetian culture. At first more reprehensible than sympathetic in running off with her lover and her father’s money, Jessica gained the audience’s sympathy when, as an outsider at Belmont, she was ignored by Portia and Nerissa. Later, tutored by Lorenzo in private moments, Jessica learned to dance and to speak in appropriately fulsome language about Portia, whom, understandably, she did not like. Her delight in her new art of dancing and her new golden dress was irresistible. And so the audience was drawn with Jessica into acquiescence in the tempting pleasures of Belmont–that is, until she learned what had been done to her father.

Shylock’s exit from the court is his textual exit from Shakespeare’s play, but not from most contemporary productions, which find ways to bring him back to disturb the comic harmony of Belmont. The Olivier production, for example, concluded with the offstage recitation of the Kaddish. The 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, showed the newly baptized Shylock being barred from the Jewish ghetto. In Munby’s production, while Portia and Bassanio and Nerissa and Gratiano were amusingly resolving their quarrels about their rings, Jessica read with horror the letter that Portia brought to Belmont detailing events in Venice. Implicitly, she realized what she had done in abandoning her father for Lorenzo, Judaism for Christianity.

The play ended with a devastating coda as a procession entered to perform the ceremony of Shylock’s baptism. In agony Pryce’s Shylock could barely respond with the required “Credo” to each article of the Christian Creed. In counterpoint to the triumphal Latin chanting of the Catholic  ceremony, Jessica kneeled at the side of the stage singing with passionate sorrow a Hebrew prayer of repentance, begging for forgiveness. The Christian procession exited, and Lorenzo returned to take Jessica into Portia’s house. But just as the doors were closing, she turned to face the audience. She was trapped–like Shylock.

The exceptional darkness of this ending to what was in many respects an audience-pleasing production of The Merchant of Venice was both deeply moving and theatrically thrilling. And the discordance was by no means out of keeping with what Shakespeare himself does elsewhere in his drama, even in an early romantic comedy such as Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I look forward to seeing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater next February.

Verna Foster is professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in modern drama, dramatic theory and Shakespeare. She holds her PhD, MPhil and BA in English from University of London. Her publications include a book on tragicomedy, as well as numerous articles.

Shakespeare’s Globe – The Merchant of Venice

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On August 4th, Chicago Shakespeare Theater welcomed Shakespeare’s Globe Theater for a ten-day stand with their touring production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Jonathan Munby. Munby has directed for Chicago Shakespeare Theater before as well, most recently in the 2016 production of Othello, set in a modern military context. In counterpoint, his Merchant of Venice was staged in early modern costumes, neck ruffs and puffy pantaloons keeping company with red skull caps for Shylock and Tubal.

It is virtually impossible in the post-Holocaust era to stage The Merchant of Venice in the genre category in which it originally appeared on stage: comedy. Its ugly episodes of anti-Semitism and forced conversion of Shylock from Judaism to Christianity are anathema in modern cultures that strive for religious tolerance. In Munby’s production comedy was localized to a specific group of characters, treating the main Shylock plot with somber seriousness. Two of the most significant comic foils were Stefan Adegbola’s Launcelot Gobbo (the cut text dispensed with Old Gobbo) and Jolyon Coy’s Gratiano, who made his first stage entrance following the protracted opening Venetian Carnival prologue drunkenly puking into a metal bucket. Unless I am mistaken, Rachel Pickup (Portia) and Dorothea Myer-Bennett (Nerissa) appeared in the long carnival prologue as masked courtesans, their hair twisted into cornutos, in a foreshadowing of their disguised stint as a legal scholar and a clerk. In addition to this courtesan stint being of a piece with the later jesting with their ring-surrendering spouses about having slept with the lawyer and clerk, Portia also had moments of onstage flirtation with Andy Apollo’s Lorenzo, suggestively cutting in with him as he danced at Belmont with his wife, Jessica. Just as Munby’s production eschewed any notion of a happy ending for Shylock, the final stage grouping of the trio of young married couples with Antonio as a heartbroken seventh wheel offered little promise of happily ever after.

The raucous prologue, with live musicians onstage egging on the excesses of the debauched carnival-goers, took place with the house lights up, patrons still making their way to their seats. The over-the-top nature of the revelry put a thumb on the scale in favor of Shylock’s later castigation of the depravity of Venetian carnival before we ever heard him deliver it. The excesses of this opening, and the broad brush strokes delineating Gratiano’s character – in a brief Italian interlude, he was accosted by a woman with a baby, who was clearly taxing him with failure to support his out-of-wedlock child – were of a piece with the full house lights of the prologue, as gestures toward this production’s original staging in the outdoor venue of the Globe Theatre in Southwark. Some of these broad gestures played less well in the more intimate, indoor setting of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and set me to musing anew about the likely alterations that Shakespeare’s own theater company might have made as productions migrated from the outdoor, open-air theaters to the dark, indoor spaces like the Blackfriars Theatre, patronized by a narrower cross-section of society than the Globe.

Continuing to sound the comic register from the bass to the treble, both of Portia’s princely suitors – Giles Terera’s Prince of Morocco and Christopher Logan’s Prince of Arragon – were played as buffoons, Morocco a scimitar-wielding ass-grabber, and Arragon a mincing narcissist in love with his own shadow … and reflection. Pickup alternated between arrogant disdain for men she clearly considered beneath her, and nervous fear that one of these idiots would choose the proper casket, tying her to them for life. She openly tried to guide Bassanio to the proper casket as a disapproving Balthasar (Colin Haigh) looked on, holding the three keys on a gilt and velvet platter.

A broad brush was also used in the characterization of Antonio (Dominic Mafham), though for darker purposes. Bassanio clearly had a sexual attraction to Dan Fredenburgh’s Bassanio, who gently rebuffed Antonio’s attempt to kiss him after the court scene, for example. Antonio’s naked hostility to Shylock visibly appalled Bassanio when Antonio approached him for a loan on his friend’s behalf; Bassanio looked on in horror as Antonio snatched a religious text from Shylock’s hands and threw it to the ground at his feet.

Adegbola bridged these broad characterizations with his comic style, effectively bridging the comedic and serious plots, as the former servant of Shylock (and confidante of Jessica), who joins the service of Bassanio. As he debated the pros and cons of leaving Shylock’s service, Adegbola brought up two audience members to stand in as his conscience (“budge not”) and the fiend (“budge”). In Adegbola’s expert hands, even this witty, fourth-wall breaking scene (an aspect of it Adegbola broke with the text to point out) subtly underlined the production’s taking of Shylock’s part – it is “the fiend,” after all, who counsels abandoning the Jew’s service.

Jonathan Pryce brought a wonderful subtlety to Shylock; while the production tilted in favor of sympathy for him, he was no angel, treating Gobbo with vicious contempt, and entering for the first time with Jessica – sensitively played by Pryce’s own daughter, Phoebe – heatedly arguing in Hebrew. Jessica’s elopement – coupled with her theft of money and jewels from her father as a self-determined dowry for her marriage to Lorenzo – turned Shylock’s long suffering sharply in the direction of vindictive revenge. Pryce’s transformation from contempt of Antonio to open hatred of him was beautifully calibrated in the way in which he delivered his lines, sinking gradually from a rational resentment of an abuser to the fear of a cornered animal, which will attack in self-defense. In the court Shylock turned the tables on Antonio initially, eagerly whetting his knife on the sole of his shoe and producing a set of brass scales from his carpet bag.

In court, Antonio appeared as a broken shell of his former arrogant self, in a tattered shift. When Portia in her guise as legal scholar temporarily conceded that the bond was forfeit, the pound of flesh Shylock’s due, a cross-beam with manacles on each end flew in from above, and the bearded and disheveled Antonio was affixed to it, briefly resembling Christ on the cross. However, given what we had seen of Antonio’s conduct prior to this scene, he scarcely seemed an ideal Christ figure. By this point in the play, the image appeared more of a critique of Christian hypocrisy than an elevation of Antonio’s suffering, much of which was the result of his own previous conduct.

Jessica emerged as a significant figure in Munby’s production, with numerous stage moments indicative of the conflicted nature of her character. Her relationship with her father, Shylock, was initially tense and bitter; her interactions with Gobbo were tender and loving; Lorenzo defended his love of Jessica to his fleering friends, Solanio and Gratiano, vehemently, lending legitimacy to a relationship that has, in some productions, been depicted as opportunistic on Lorenzo’s part. After the interval, Jessica had a silent, solo stage moment in which she seemed depressed; Lorenzo approached to offer her a present: a large cross pendant on a necklace. Jessica brightened at the gift, and turned to let Lorenzo put it on her. However, her happiness was soon undercut by the mistress of Belmont; Portia sailed in, handed her wine to Jessica as if she were a common servant, and cut in on her to dance away with her husband. Jessica was jealous of Portia, but Lorenzo, in his turn, was jealous of the friendly intimacy between Jessica and Gobbo. All of these conflicted emotions were conveyed by the actors in brief scenes punctuating the information provided in the actual text.

The most stunning effect, however, was reserved for the epilogue. Just as the play began with carnival stage business that is not overtly in the text, it concluded with stage business that is forecast in the play text, but not staged within it. As Jessica read the court order giving her possession of half of Shylock’s estate, she became increasingly agitated, eventually breaking into a song of mourning in Hebrew. The upstage wall then parted, breaking the darkness of Jessica’s stage moment with a blaze of light, as white-clad priests carrying censors accompanied Shylock in a white shift on stage, chanting “Credo” in Latin, as he underwent his forced baptism. Jessica continued her Hebrew lament, punctuating the Christian ceremony, the two religions colliding in the epilogue in see-saw fashion, the daughter who had willingly converted now returning to the religious tradition – and, by extension, the father – she had spurned, as Shylock reluctantly followed his daughter into Christianity.

No one died in Munby’s Merchant of Venice, making it no tragedy, but the community created via marriage and religious conversion in the final scenes scarcely seemed a happy one. The Globe brought a tragical comedy to Navy Pier, the emphasis on the tragic, the comedy reserved, on the whole, for characters who flitted through the production, tragedy the register for the central ones.

Regina Buccola is a professor and chair of the department of literature and languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in women’s and gender studies. Her most recent publications include (as editor) A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and she co-edited, with Peter Kanelos, Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night

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In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, after having quickly tricked Cesario into straying from Orsino’s prepared speeches of courtship, the Countess Olivia triumphantly declares that the poor Viola-in-disguise is “Now out of your text” (1.5.204). This causes Cesario to abandon the “text” completely, so that Olivia receives passionate words directly from the heart, perhaps for the first time, and ultimately falls in love with this unwitting messenger.

Similarly, it was the extra-textual, intuitive nature of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Shakespeare in the Parks production of Twelfth Night that drew love from the audience at Welles Park. Before the show began, Will Mobley, the show’s Feste, addressed an audience that professed to be about half newcomers to Shakespeare’s works and advised them to use context to guide their experience when the text itself became too impenetrable. Flanked by the grand Welles Gazebo on one side and a group of elderly men playing bocce on the other, and preceded by a riveting presentation by the Old Town School of Folk Music that had many playgoers dancing in their seats, CST gave a performance that enabled the audience to use this context to enjoy a show that was true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s words while updating and packaging them for a modern, casual setting.

Presented with a play that often rings with dark notes even as it is undoubtedly a comedy, director Kirsten Kelly and the performers were able to remove some of this ambiguity for an audience that included dogs, babies, and balloons as well as attentive listeners. While some might say this detracts from the play’s overall complexity and Shakespeare’s artistic achievement, the beauty of theatre is that it is adaptable to the context outside it in the same way that it is able to use onstage context to draw listeners in. For this particular show, the decision to turn Orsino’s and Olivia’s melancholy into melodrama was the right one. For example, Orsino made his entrance carrying an enormous portrait of Olivia done in lurid colors which he then proceeded to dance with and eventually kiss rather emphatically, laying on it a large, wet smack that was audible over the “food of love” coming from Feste’s piano. We were unquestionably in a comedy from the start.

The transformation of Feste, the “wise fool” originally created for the more satirical and serious clown Robert Armin, into a lively jester-turned-musician kept much of the more confusing dialogue at bay and consistently kept the energy of the show high. Feste often speaks in riddles that take us a moment to puzzle out. Some of these moments were kept, such as his logical proof that Olivia is really the fool and not he (1.5.61), but many of them were cut, rightfully I think, as it kept the audience’s attention moving in this abridged, outdoor production. They had also composed an upbeat musical score for many of Feste’s songs, particularly the finale known most often as “The Wind and the Rain,” and incorporated this music throughout the show. Such decisions made for a cohesive, pleasant performance for a Sunday afternoon in the park.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways in which the director and cast upheld the joyful arc of the show while making use of the context of performance was the overall treatment of Malvolio. This is often one of those dark notes already mentioned. While he is never exactly likable, in other renditions I have seen and in the text itself the other characters’ trickery and humiliation of Malvolio can easily come across as cruel; the humor goes one step too far. This negativity is underscored by his final line, in which he vows to “be revenged on the whole pack of [them]” (5.1.365). The Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks show left none of this lingering doubt amidst our happily ever after, and this was achieved largely by the actors’ full engagement with the audience and the brilliant characterization of the long-suffering, absurdly pedantic, and somehow endearing Malvolio by Jonathan Weir.

In Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre, Robert Weimann outlines the difference between what he terms the locus and platea. The locus is the upper, more focalized part of the stage where action is more separated from the audience, while the platea is the lower part, sometimes even spilling into the seats, where the action is more connected to the spectators and context of playing. Rather than place Malvolio, the focus of our ridicule, on the more separated locus of the stage, nearly all of his actions were given on the platea, either at the very front of the stage or on the ramp and grass in front of it. From the way he addressed the reading of “Olivia’s” love letter directly to the audience, to his swiping of a snack from a playgoer in the front row, to his retreating after his declaration of revenge not backstage and out of sight but fairly deeply into the actual audience, Malvolio was clearly someone we laughed with, not at; an engaging character with his own kind of humor who was reconciled back into the cast at the end and was never alienated from the silliness of the other characters or the casualness of the setting.

CST went quite far “out of their text” for this Parks performance, abridging many scenes and even translating whole speeches into Spanish, but the results were truly gratifying. By balancing their commitment to Shakespeare with their duty to their audience, Kelly and her cast and crew produced a show that sent both first-time viewers and seasoned veterans away laughing.

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 Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night


On August 6th I went to Welles Park with hundreds of other Chicagoans carrying picnic blankets, food, and those little Shakespeare fans to see Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks’ performance of Twelfth Night. It’s worth the trek to your neighborhood park in terms of stage design alone. Without spoiling too much, one device that struck me as being highly original and humorous in this production was that of Viola/Cesario riding her bike in place on stage while Malvolio races up, falls back, puffing, and finally overtakes her by overturning the bike and demanding that she take back the ring that she supposedly gifted to Olivia. Similarly, in the first scene of this production (the original play’s Act 1, Scene 2) the twins hurl themselves around the nautical stage’s ladders and rigging, mimicking the violence of the wind and waves as their ship breaks apart and hurls them in opposite directions, movements rendered more striking by the sound of snapping timber and howling winds. Besides the fanciness of some of these more dramatic moments, Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks’ Twelfth Night makes some interesting changes that speak to the question of translating Shakespeare’s work to modern audiences. Adapted and directed by Kirsten Kelly, this production introduced Spanish translations of Viola and Sebastian’s English lines when they spoke to each other, played up and updated the music in Shakespeare’s original play, and eliminated Malvolio’s Puritan antecedents, three significant changes that update and simplify the convoluted plot.

In particular, the first change provides a subtext to the story that would otherwise be lacking, juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar, the domestic with the foreign. With two Spanish-speaking actors in the production playing leading roles, the brash, amusing Andrea San Miguel as Viola and Nate Santana as a dashing Sebastian, Kelly apparently chose to have the twins occasionally converse with each other in this language. This brief use of Spanish ironically had the effect of being intelligible to some bilingual members of an audience already straining to understand Early Modern English, while excluding others from the intimacy of the twins’ relationship. Actor Will Mobley’s pre-play adjuration, “Watching Shakespeare takes a few minutes before eyes and ears adjust. Watch the faces and watch what the actors do,” applied perfectly to this scenario as well. Accordingly, this change did not obscure the play’s sense at all. Through their corresponding actions, such as desperate reaching, crying aloud, or embracing passionately, the general sense of these words could be easily interpreted by viewers: A brother and sister torn apart…A brother and sister lovingly reunited. These few translated lines also stressed how such Spanish-speakers in a predominately English-speaking society could find intimacy, familiarity, and even privacy in conversing with family members in their mother tongue. But what would Shakespeare say to his English lines being translated into modern Spanish? Based on his track record with languages other than English and Latin, I think he would love it.

Though all of Shakespeare’s lines in Twelfth Night are originally composed in English, the playwright also relished writing lines in other languages for diversion and show off his learning. Notably, he left spaces for Welsh to be spoken by the Earl of Glendower’s daughter, (a part possibly enacted by a Welsh-speaking actor in his company) in 1 Henry IV and in Henry V wrote the majority of Princess Katherine of France’s lines in French to indicate the cultural and linguistic divides that separated couples transculturally wedded in a time of war and dynastic change. As for Shakespeare’s use of ancient Illyria as the setting, this seems to have been motivated by a desire to choose a fantasyland for his shipwrecked travelers that would be culturally vague and exotic-sounding, not to pinpoint a specific setting. Dwellers at the sites of modern Montenegro and Albania, both the Illyrians and their native language remain lost to history, representing a convenient European geographical vacancy for Shakespeare to fill with a motley assortment of inhabitants inexplicably and haphazardly given English (Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch) and Italian (Olivia, Orsino, and Malvolio) names, regardless of interrelation or social class. As no indication is given in the original play as to Viola and Sebastian’s parentage, country of origin, or station in life beyond its being “above [their] fortunes” (Act 1, Scene 5) and their having had a father who had previously “named” Orsino to his daughter as an eligible bachelor (Act 1, Scene 2), it may reasonably be assumed that these twins with Italian or Latin names are from an Iberian locale and of noble birth. Having Viola and Sebastian speak Spanish to each other in Kelley’s adaptation ultimately emphasizes their secret foreignness in Orsino’s Illyria, a single wistful echo of the familiar world lost to them through their journey, shipwreck, and perhaps even new marriages to local Illyrian nobility, in an otherwise outrageous comedy.

And yes, this comedy is outrageous, playful fun by an impressively solid cast. Devastatingly regal in nightcap and silk dressing-gown, Jonathan Weir plays an off-the-cuff Malvolio for all he is worth, flailing his long, yellow cross-gartered legs about, making absurd facial contortions, and persistently stealing Lays potato chips and white wine from the audience at the least excuse: “Can’t eat just one!” Moping about Byronically with disheveled attire, Neal Moeller’s portrayal of Orsino emphasizes the character’s ridiculous oversentimentality while preserving the menace of his misogynistic diatribes against Olivia for spurning his advances. Further high points throughout the comedy were Dominic Conti’s hilarious gaucherie as the clueless suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the comedic timing of Ronald Conner’s Sir Toby Belch, Nike Kadri’s dignified, passionate Olivia, and Will Mobley’s empathetic interpretation of Feste, Olivia’s fool. The boxing scene and its choreography were utterly marvelous – but I’ll say no more. Pack a basket, grab some congenial folks, and go see the play for yourself!

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.Read more about Lydia…

The Backroom Shakespeare Project – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Backroom Shakespeare Project is a special kind of theater company.  Their tagline, “Serious actors, no director, one rehearsal, at a bar” pretty much sums up their way of making theater.  From a scholarly perspective, the “project” that gives them their name is a particularly interesting one .  For the BRSP, the goal is to recreate the kind of relationship between actors and audience experienced by Early Modern theatergoers.  By that, they do not mean that they are trying to recreate the production values of Shakespeare’s company; quite the contrary.  A good reproduction of a production as done on the stage of the Globe (a project that has been attempted many times to various degrees) could not possibly recreate the audience experience enjoyed by the apprentices who loved the plays at the Red Bull so much that they rioted when Queen Anne’s Men moved into the upscale cockpit and raised their ticket prices.  Instead, the BRSP works hard to put their audience at ease – to make them feel like they belong there, and are part of the show; not in the contemporary “immersive” way that is quite popular in a lot of theaters, where actors talking to audience members feels almost aggressive and uncomfortable, but rather with a sense of comradeship.  The Project achieves this comradeship by laying out their principles before the show – literally telling audiences to keep their phones on, to live-tweet or Instagram or Facebook the show as it happens, and to get up whenever they feel like they want another beer or need to go to the rest room.

During their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Radler on July 25th, the whole audience was laughing uproariously, for nearly the entire duration of the play. Of course, Midsummer is a comedy, but all too often, that appellation is not earned in production.  The show opened with “Bear Baiting” (and a brief explanation of the Early Modern practice of bear baiting and its relation to the theater), where audience members volunteered to take on the roles of bear and dog – though in an insult competition drawn from random internet searches rather than actual combat – cheered on by the rest of the audience and the cast.  It worked well to set the mood and get the audience comfortable with the different kind of theater experience. What made the show so much fun was that the actors were bringing the story directly to the audience that was there to see it, mixing Shakespeare’s language with Chicago’s, to tell a story that is both Shakespeare’s and Chicago’s.  This is the “Rough Theater” that Peter Brook discusses in The Empty Space:

The arsenal is limitless: the aside, the placard, the topical reference, the local jokes, the exploiting of accidents, the songs, the dances, the tempo, the noise, the relying on contrasts, the shorthand of exaggeration, the false noses, the stock types, the stuffed bellies. The popular theatre, freed of unity of style, actually speaks a very sophisticated and stylish language: a popular audience usually has no difficulty in accepting inconsistencies of accent and dress, or in darting between mime and dialogue, realism and suggestion.

This is the kind of theater that Backroom embraces.  And it is the same theater that Shakespeare’s companies embraced.  Again, in Brook’s words, “The popular tradition is also bearbaiting, ferocious satire and grotesque caricature. This quality was present in the greatest of rough theatres, the Elizabethan one.”

This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was unapologetic in its attempt to tell us the story in ways that make sense to us, not to Shakespeare’s long-dead audience.  The actuality was evident in the acknowledgement of all the things in this 400 year-old play that no longer work.  There are lines of poetry that no longer rhyme in our current pronunciation.  The actors did not ignore the text, nor did they ignore their own voices; they tried to rhyme the words, acknowledged their failure with a laugh or a furrowed brow, then repeated the line using the non-rhyming “correct” pronunciation with evident satisfaction.  The production thus reaped the benefits of a running gag that was continually entertaining, and which was both utterly contemporary and yet rooted deeply in the text that they love.

In a similar vein, Skyler Schremp’s interpretation of Puck as a harried, disorganized personal assistant was hilarious.  What seemed at first like simply a funny choice (Schremp was constantly jotting notes down on post-its, napkins, and eventually her arm, whenever Oberon said anything) landed brilliantly when she, a bit behind on her dictation, made Oberon repeat “Athenian garments” several times as the Fairy King was describing who should be dosed with the love potion.

Puck: “Athenian what?”

Oberon: “Garments!”

Puck: “Right, got it!” (Scribbling.  Pause.)  “And…garments are clothes?”

Oberon: “Yes!”

Puck: “Athenian clothes, got it. That’s it? Nothing else?”

Of course, when the potion goes in the wrong eyes, and Oberon begins to blame Puck, she still has the words “Athenian garments” scribbled on her forearm to show to Oberon, to the raucous laughter of the crowd.

The topical references that, by Brook’s account, are a vital part of the rough theater were there: the “Ass’s head” that Puck put onto Bottom was, of course, a Donald Trump mask.  The joke was so obvious that it seemed almost too easy, but nonetheless it connected with the audience, many who have probably seen practically nothing else on their social media since the GOP convention the week before.

The audience relationship is the primary focus of the Project, but it is in service to the play.  The actors are telling the story because the story is important to them.  What they do with the story is often funny, often self-referential, and often a departure from the text, but their performance results in an audience experience that allows for thoughtful consideration of what the story is saying.  In this production, the genders of the characters were assigned as if at random; all four lovers were played by women, while Hippolyta was played by a man.  But on reflection, it is not random.  Audiences for Midsummer Night’s Dream regularly feel that they cannot tell the lovers apart or remember who is supposed to go with whom, and in this performance, it seems like that is part of the point of the play. At the opening of the play, Demetrius and Lysander both love Hermia, but the play take valuable exposition time right at the beginning to make it clear that the lovers have always been switching roles.  Not long ago both men loved Helena, and first one and then the other changed allegiances.  If the four lovers are all the same gender, then the mixing and matching between them is even harder to follow; we in the audience are led to understand that there might be less “true” about “true love” than a surface reading of the play would indicate.

As evidenced by this performance alone, The Backroom Shakespeare Project is worth seeing. In a way, the Project is a testament to the strength of Shakespeare’s plays: there is room in Chicago for every kind of adaptation, performance, and treatment, from the flagship productions of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, to the gritty storefront theaters, to the many Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer.  Each has something to offer, some new insight into the Elizabethan world.

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.