The opening number Chicago a cappella performed for their Shakespeare a cappella concert was Kevin Olson’s “Summer Sonnet,” a bossa nova arrangement of Sonnet 18, which concludes with the lines “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” The lines seemed to speak to the spirit behind the concert and the Shakespeare 400 programs of which it is a part. The beauty of Shakespeare’s work, the connections we make across the centuries, and the opportunities to see and hear well-known passages anew will continue, it seems, “as long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”
Performances by Barbara Robertson and Greg Vinkler, both beloved veteran Chicago actors, punctuated the musical pieces. The choices of text allowed Robertson and Vinkler to display their versatile talents and clear love of the works they were sharing. Like changelings, they were playful, majestic, passionate, cynical, hopeful, and scornful in turn. They embodied the unexpected electricity of Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting as convincingly as the well-worn comfort between Doll and Falstaff in Henry V. Vinkler played equally persuasively both the monarchical Oberon and the farcical Bottom to Robertson’s stately, and then bewitched, Titania. Perhaps my favorite exchange between the two was their turns as Beatrice and Benedick in their initial parley of Much Ado About Nothing.
The interstitial spoken pieces reinforced the experience of the musical arrangements; each allowed the audience to hear these often-familiar texts out of their familiar contexts. The recontextualization opened up new interpretations that may be missed when the lines are only a brief portion of a two-hour production. Rather than a few moments that are glossed in an audience member’s memory, the attention this production gave each passage allowed the audience to hear the words anew.
The juxtaposition of pieces from different Shakespearean works also provided new contextualizations that created resonances that would have been otherwise impossible to hear. Writer and Director Tom Mula resisted obvious or lazy pairings between spoken and musical pieces, yet each transition proved a harmonic choice. For instance, the singers performed Håkan Parkman’s “My love is a fever,” an arrangement of Sonnet 147. This sonnet explores the trope of lovesickness and casts “reason” as the physician. The arrangement facilitated the audience’s sense of the intensity of the poet’s suffering especially with a shift to a minor key at the sonnet’s volta when the poet reveals that his beloved is “as black as hell, as dark as night.” As the applause faded, Vinkler and Robertson began a scene from As You Like It where Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) scolds a lovesick Orlando that, “Men have died from time to / time and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (IV.i.107-108). The lines could just as easily have been directed at the speaker of Sonnet 147.
A similar recontextualization effect occurred for me when the group performed two different arrangements of Sonnet 18. In addition to Olson’s “Summer Sonnet” with which the concert opened, the program also included Robert Applebaum’s “Shall I compare thee?” Applebaum’s darker arrangement provided a stark contrast to Olson’s bossa nova. Described in the program as “wrenchingly sad, yet exquisitely beautiful,” Applebaum’s arrangement accents the somber undertones of a poem that is so often associated with the ebullience of a summer’s day. The poem, however, does acknowledge that “summer’s lease hath all too short a date” and that death will come to the beloved, which is why the poet crafts the sonnet—to give the beloved life for as long as the poem exists. Shakespeare’s crafting of exquisite balance in the poem was reflected in the juxtaposition of the two arrangements in performance.
The value of a celebration like Shakespeare 400 is that it provides us all opportunities to do for Shakespeare’s work what Shakespeare’s work does for its audiences: it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Hearing Shakespeare’s words sung not only highlights the innate musicality of the language, but plucks that language out of its native environs, allowing the audience to watch it bloom in new surroundings. Like the opportunities to see the plays performed in other languages, or danced rather than spoken, hearing Chicago a cappella perform selections from Shakespeare’s works allowed me to hear some of it as if for the first time and to come to a new and deeper appreciation for the art of a man separated from us by four centuries but connected to us by shared human experience.
Lise Schlosser is a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University completing her dissertation on narrative and crisis in the early seventeenth century in England. Her research interests include Shakespeare and early modern drama, performance studies, gender studies and metaphor. She holds her MA in English literature and her BA in anthropology from Northern Illinois University.