Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

Eleanor McLoughlin, Chris Gordon. Copyright Johan Persson.jpg

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

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

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

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


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

Cheek by Jowl – The Winter’s Tale

07_Guy Hughes, Orlando James, Joseph Black, Chris Gordon. Photo Johan Persson_CROP.jpg

I saw the Cheek by Jowl production of The Winter’s Tale on December 20, the longest night of the year, and it haunted me well into the dark hours of the early morning. It’s a play I’ve seen often before, including memorable productions at Chicago Shakespeare in 2002-2003 and 1994-1995. But Declan Donnellan’s stunning, sometimes even shocking, direction made me see things in it I never saw before—which often happens in a really good production of a familiar Shakespeare play.[1] The central plot is simple enough:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pritzker Military Museum and Library – Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Shakespeare Tonight!

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

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

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

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

Who do you think you are,
Running round leaving scars,
Collecting your jar of hearts,
And tearing love apart?
You’re gonna catch a cold,
From the ice inside your soul,
So don’t come back for me.
Who do you think you are?

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

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

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

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


Timothy J. 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. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. Read More…

Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths

48CompleteDeaths.jpgThe United Kingdom-based physical comedy troupe Spymonkey’s members include Toby Park, Petra Massey, Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss, all of whom play fictionalized, exaggerated versions of their own “real” identities in The Complete Deaths, which ran recently at the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. The premise of the show is as follows: an ensemble troupe is performing an evening of avant-garde, serious, “anti-capitalist” Shakespeare in which all the onstage deaths in the canon are to be presented, each death commemorated on a neon sign counting down to “76.” This is “art” and, as the ostensible leader of the troupe, Toby, proclaims—real art is meant to be challenging: “the first death is of the audience’s complacency.” There are in fact only seventy-four onstage deaths in Shakespeare’s plays; if the first “death” is of the audience’s horizon of expectation, the final death is of the “black ill-favored fly” from Titus Andronicus. This fly, in turn, poses something of a recurring gag through­out in that a fly-camera is also stuck at the end of a record­ing stick that occasionally travels up actors’ noses and into their mouths, the resulting visions projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Battle of the Bard

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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 (Bensenville, IL) 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. When she teamed up with Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2015, the number grew to thirty and it reached over forty 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 (Skokie, IL), 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 (Chicago) 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 mimic 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 vice 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 vice 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.


Timothy J. 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. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. 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 the region. 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 in Chicago and Niles North High School in Skokie).

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 gender-bending 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 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.