Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths

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

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

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

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

FIRST MURDERER Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey butt in the next room.
SECOND MURDERER
O excellent device!—and make a sop of him.
FIRST MURDERER
Strike!
SECOND MURDERER
No, we’ll reason with him.

(1.4.144-151)

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

CLARENCE How darkly and how deadly dost thou speak.
Your eyes do menace me. Why look you pale?
Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come?
SECOND MURDERER
To, to, to—
CLARENCE
To murder me.
BOTH MURDERERS
Ay, ay.

(1.4.159-164)

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

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


Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia.

Culinary Complete Works – Three Takes: Two Gentlemen

Recently, Berwyn’s Autre Monde Café & Spirits played host to 16th Street Theater’s performances of three sketches inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona as part of Shakespeare 400 Chicago’s Culinary Complete Works series. Providing delectable fare for both the mind and body, this event held on November 16 provided a new way of transporting the body through taste into a different time period and culture while exploring how controversial Shakespearean themes and conventional devices can be updated and revised to provoke self-reflection in a twenty-first-century context. Sending their dinner guests on a gastronomical excursion from Verona to Milan, Chefs Dan Pancake and Beth Partridge of Autre Monde served up a delicious gourmet meal following champagne and hors d’oeuvres, concluding with dessert and coffee. Welcoming guests to the Berwyn community to “see what we do,” Sommelier John Aranza provided regional wine pairings to complement each course, explaining that his choices were inspired by the culture and history of northern Verona. Between each serving, dinner guests were transformed into members of a theater audience as actors performed scenes composed by playwrights Rob Koon, Arlene Malinowski and Juan Villa, inspired by the work, but not written in the original language of Shakespeare.

Following applause, the first course was immediately served, consisting of Poached Lake Trout, Pesto Prezzemolo, a delicious dish which had a sour, herbal sauce lavished on the meat accompanied by warm, well-cooked purple cauliflower. This was paired with Ca’ Di Rajo’s Le Moss from Trentino, made with unfiltered Glera grapes, which was described to me by the sommelier as “fresh and harmonious, with an exotic muskiness.” Taste-wise, this sparkling white wine possessed a tart, earthy tang, with a bouquet like an apple orchard in harvest. Experienced simultaneously, such a counterintuitive taste and smell agreeably confused the palate.

After the first course, two actors played the roles of Shelly and David in “Coffeehouse” by Robert Koon in a scene based loosely on Proteus’s deceitful love for Valentine’s fiancée in Two Gentlemen. Likely written and performed between 1590 and 1593, this play is an early comedy, possibly representing Shakespeare’s initial, or at least first successful, foray as a playwright. In a hilarious subplot that delighted Queen Elizabeth, Sir Proteus’s bumbling Lance, prone to spouting malapropisms and acting out tearful family partings with old shoes, carries on a fraught, but devoted relationship with his misbehaving dog, Crab. Despite hinting at Shakespeare’s budding comedic genius, this comedy contains near tragedy, its main plot depicting how a devoted friendship between two men, Proteus and Valentine, flounders in jealousy and betrayal due to mutual passion for the same woman, the fair Silvia. After pretending to promote his friend’s suit, Proteus lays siege to Silvia’s heart and, proving unsuccessful in his endeavor, threatens her with rape:

PROTEUS Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words
Can in no way change you to a milder form
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arm’s end,
And love you ‘gainst the nature of love: force ye.
SILVIA
O heaven!
PROTEUS
(assailing her) I’ll force thee yield to my desire.

(5.4. 55-59)

After rescuing Sylvia from Proteus’s onslaught, Valentine appears to offer his fiancée to him for the sake of preserving their comradeship in a scene that has long puzzled Shakespearean critics and embarrassed directors keen for an alternative. All is resolved, however, with Valentine and Silvia reunited and repentant Proteus returning to his longsuffering love Julia, who has followed him disguised in male attire.

Though “Coffeehouse” eloquently speaks to the conflict between succumbing to the temptations of mimetic desire and conforming to standard morality in the name of friendship, the piece largely sidesteps the original play’s issues with rape, sexual consent, and the commodification of women. Of course, such delicacy may be due to the undeniable fact that such repellent scenes might put diners off their food, exemplified by the shocking lack of Thomas Middleton and John Webster-themed dinner theater. Meeting for drinks tête à tête, DAVID ponders aloud to SHELLY, his best friend JOHN’S girlfriend and his not-so-secret crush, “…Sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to be a good friend. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be an asshole…Not making a choice, it’s just easier. Doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole, you’re just an internal asshole.” After being reassured by an anxious SHELLY that he is “…not an asshole. Not even an internal one,” David gives the following response, a mightily ambiguous one, considering the original character Proteus’s justification of rape as a mechanism for physically overcoming female disinterest and rejection:

Oh, I could be. All it takes is justification. And you can justify anything. I could justify all sorts of things. It’s easy. You just say something’s really important to have, say, love, and then all you have to do is say, hey, if love’s the most important thing, you have to go after what you love. And anything that stands in your way, well, it’s not as important as love, so it’s got to go. You can justify anything.

Clearly, ignoring female autonomy is not at issue here in Koon’s scene so much as the question of potential heterosexual betrayal, contingent on violating masculine trust. Being an “asshole” does not equate to threatening rape, nor does “love” serve as a substitute for sexual assault. But David’s use of phrases such as “You have to go after what you love” and belief that “You can justify anything” if it stands in the way of love, indicates the moral fragility of David’s character and recalls Proteus’s willingness to overcome Sylvia if he cannot win her verbal acceptance of his suit. However, differences do exist between Shakespeare’s Sylvia and SHELLY, who, while also reminding DAVID of his prior romantic interest JULIE (Julia) seems physically responsive to DAVID, holding his hand and lingering when she should leave. These changes effectively downplay the Sylvia character’s disinterest, call her own motivations into question in meeting up sans boyfriend in the first place, and suggest that the themes of faithfulness and betrayal, not the threat of sexual violence, occupy the focus of Koon’s contemporary scene.

The second course was Tortallacci Bergamese, made with brown butter, sage, and parmigiano, paired with a refreshingly crisp and sharp Freccioarossa “Sillery” Pinot Nero Bianco, from Lombardia (2015). The main dish, my favorite of the evening, had a sweet nut garnish with a savory veal pasty, amoretti, pinenuts and raisins. Judging from the taste I thought hazelnut or almond liquor might have been mixed into the sauce. Apparently, if a Pinot Noir is denied skin contact with the grape it has a clear juice; thus, the wine was a white Pinot Noir, which blew my uncultured mind. 

Next, diners viewed “Tinderella” by Arlene Malinowski based on Act 1, Scene 2 of Two Gentlemen, which provoked many laughs with its indication of the discrepancy in using social media that often exists between contemporary generations, unique dating app take on Julia’s interest in her suitor, Proteus, and timely questions it raised about whether using different forms of communication to romantically connect in the digital age shifts the power dynamic between genders at all. Shakespeare’s scene depicts Julia and her maid Lucetta debating the merits of her various suitors until the latter angers her mistress. After dropping a love letter from Proteus, Julia is further teased by her maid until she angrily tears it to pieces, crying: “Go, get you gone and let the papers lie. / You would be fing’ring them to anger me.” Lucetta responds in an aside: “She makes it strange, but she would be best pleased / To be so angered with another letter” (101-104). After Lucetta’s exit, Julia frantically recovers the scattered letter, searching for both lovers’ names and lamenting her rash act: “I’ll kiss each several paper for amends / … And here is writ ‘Love-wounded Proteus.’ / Poor wounded name, my bosom as a bed / Shall lodge thee till thy wound be thoroughly healed” (109-116). By directly addressing the letter, Julia’s speech emphasizes the powerful, but ephemeral nature of the written word. Paper seems to be contrasted with the fickle yet elastic state of love, which can be lost and found as a letter can be torn and reassembled.

It is doubtful whether electronic communication can serve as an exact substitute for this metaphor (partial data recovery, encountering the same Tinder profile again, unblocking someone on Facebook), but there are parallels. In Malinowski’s scene, a young girl, JULIA, describes her attempts to find love on Tinder to her family’s old maid, LUCHETTA. She explains, “Tinder is, like this app on your phone. It, ummm helps you- you know like, find guys that are a match.” LUCHETTA responds, unexpectedly, “Oh, like Grinder and Scruff.” Giggling in mock horror, JULIA demands, “Luchetta, how do you EVEN know about that?” Another intergenerational moment involves Luchetta’s ignorance of the “secret” meaning of certain emojis to great comedic effect.

LUCHETTA Oh look, you got something back. He says. “Hey girl. Thanks for hitting me up” and then he sent a picture of an eggplant?
JULIA
Ewww. Forget it. He’s gross.
LUCHETTA
What’s wrong with that? So he likes vegetables.

After encountering a dud or two, JULIA swipes right on “Proteus. An Italian foreign exchange student from Verona,” who she says “looks a little like that guy from Game of Thrones, right? OK, He likes Fetty Wap. Me too! He reads Vonnegut and Hemingway.” LUCHETTA observes drily, “That’s a little too predictable if you ask me. Trying too hard.” Though this scene relied heavily on audience knowledge of the Tinder app’s twists and turns, there was one reference to the original play’s underlying gender issues, contemplating female powerlessness when it comes to romantic initiative and the fulfilment of desire.

Still somewhat mystified by Tinder as JULIA messages PROTEUS, LUCHETTA asks, “Now, we wait for him to message back?” After being answered in the affirmative, LUCHETTA reflects,

You know, women waste too much time waiting for men.
We’ve done it for centuries. Waiting for them to notice us. Waiting for them to propose. Now you, waiting for them to swipe right. I don’t know why smart, independent women do that to ourselves.

According to LUCHETTA, like the tragic Julia pursuing fickle Proteus, modern women still “wait” for men to respond to them on dating apps, desperately hoping that they will be interested in pursuing a romantic relationship (and, it must be admitted, vice-versa). However, this scene generally maintained a lighthearted, amusing tone stressing the comfortable intimacy and trust between the two women as opposed to their tense back-and-forth in Two Gentlemen.

At this stage, the third course arrived, the delectable Bollito Misto, a northern Italian beef and chicken (or veal) stew, Corn Polenta, which is a cornmeal and cheese side dish rather like Southern grits, and Grilled Radicchio, radishes prepared in olive oil and sea salt, all paired with Malvira Nebbiolo, in Roero, from Piedmonte (2009). This red wine’s bark was worse than its bite: though it smelled acidic, the actual taste was like currents and berries with a fine aftertaste.

In the final sketch, “Camaraderie” by Juan Francisco Villa, two old friends, Rad and Jaff, discuss the tricky issue of communal identity, uneven loyalties, and the failure to “make it” in the big outside world. Of the three scenes, this last seemed most divorced from the themes of Two Gentlemen, appearing to combine Valentine’s abandonment of Proteus and Proteus’s sexual betrayal of his friend into Rad’s person and to excise specific references to romantic and sexual rivalries. Refusing Proteus’s attempts to dissuade him from his journey in Act 1, scene 1, Valentine bids farewell to his friend: “Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus. / Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.” Were Proteus not in love with a local girl, he claims,

I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of the world abroad,
Than, living dully sluggardized at home,
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.

(1.1.1-8)

When they do meet again Proteus deceitfully and unsuccessfully woos Sylvia and the pair are momentarily estranged until Valentine makes peace with Proteus, urging the superior claims of their masculine brotherhood over the female influence that has interfered throughout the play to separate them.

Similarly, in “Camaraderie,” Rad’s return to the neighborhood he lived in throughout childhood with his friend Jaff recalls their old history, such as covering for each other’s fancied sexual transgressions. Time has passed, however, and the dynamic has shifted between the two during Rad’s prolonged absence. Perceiving Rad to be looking down on him while refusing to face his own failures, Jaff exclaims,

DON’T PLAY ME RAD! Do. Not. Play me like I’m some hipster who buys elotes for twice the price cuz it’s “local.” I did alla’ that shit for you so that you can get the fuck outta here and do something with your life.

He demands of his friend why he moved back, only for Rad to admit his fear of failing again, a move Jaff interprets as cowardly, seeking after unprofitable stasis. He conducts an interrogation to help Rad discover the truth about himself and change his attitude before it is too late to escape being a failure at home, like Jaff believes himself to be.

JAFF Coming back here is succeeding to you?
RAD No.
JAFF So then it’s failing.
RAD No.
JAFF So you’re not succeeding or failing by moving back home?
RAD Kind of.

In a final magnanimous gesture, Jaff urges Rad to forget about his own betrayals as a friend and instead focus on making his dreams come true, since he has a chance to succeed. This scene seemed extremely relevant for millennials finding their career path, or those familiar with leaving home to “make it” in the big world.

The evening concluded with dessert, or “Dolci,” as the menu stylishly termed it: Pumpkin Ricotta Torta, garnished with a Semolina Cookie. This was paired with a moscato, Tenuta Gambalonga, “Jelmo” Fior d’Arancio, from Veneto (2015) and gloriously strong coffee. Though it was beautifully presented, the pumpkin dessert was the only indifferent culinary moment to me in an otherwise delicious meal, since it preserved the original sourness of pumpkin without sugar and I have a sweet tooth when it comes to dessert. The moscato, on the other hand, was dry and refreshing, spritzy, with a hint of orange peel.

Feeling physically like the most contented of boa constrictors, I returned home pondering the difficulties inherent in translating a play like Two Gentlemen to modern times. As demonstrated by the modern scenes inspired by the play, male friendship endures today with its code of duty and loyalty, as it did in Shakespeare’s day and age, male rivalry over females also persists, and so does a culture of entitlement and rape. Perhaps in future productions this play should be staged in full as it reads, not avoided or softened, demonstrating the dangers of acting wrongly towards people of both sexes either for personal benefit or selfish revenge.


Lydia Craig

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.

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks – Twelfth Night

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On August 6, 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 Kelly’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…

Grant Park Chorus – Grant Park Music Festival

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The Grant Park Chorus performed at the Columbus Park Refectory on July 24, 2016, to an overflowing audience. So many eager attendees thronged into the hall that the performance was held up by the necessity of adding new rows of seats for the newcomers still streaming in after 3 pm. Choral member Matt Greenberg, who recently celebrated nearly twenty years of performing with the GPC, began by welcoming everyone. Participating in Chicago’s Shakespeare 400 Celebration, he said, gave the chorus a welcome opportunity to stand out from The Grant Park Orchestra with which they usually collaborate. Moving chronologically through history, the chorus began with Shakespearean songs set to music by early modern composers before performing present-day rendi­tions. First they sang two instantly recognizable songs from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the first being It Was a Lover and His Lass,”set to music by Thomas Morley (1557/1558-1602) in his First Book of Balletts (1595). Their united voices echoed throughout the rectangular

space and Columbus Hall and its wooden rafters in a hair-raisingly lovely sound.

Pausing the performance after the chorus had imitated the harsh, gusting blast in “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” by Thomas Augustine Arne arr. Radcliffe (1710-1778), Director Christopher Bell faulted the audience’s applause for being too polite, “sounding as though we’re here to entertain you on a summer afternoon!” After the audience obliged with greater applause, Bell made the first of several remarks on Shakespearean music and drama, pointing out that no main characters would be singing these songs in the plays. “Some lowlife, some wandering minstrel would sing the song, which would reflect in some way on what was occurring in the drama,” he observed. Divorced from the cultural contexts in which Shakespeare’s songs were originally performed, however, musicians are free to experiment with the playwright’s words according to their own inclinations. In terms of why he himself chose these particular songs for the Shakespeare 400 program, Bell explained, “True, a wide variety of composers have composed Shakespeare arrangements. In my particular choices for this performance, my one criteria is—I have to like the music.”

Fortunately for this critic throughout the next hour, Bell’s musical tastes seemed to accord well with my own. As exemplified by the first two songs, the selections either tended to the rollicking comical, or the wistfully solemn, reflecting in a way the tenor and variations of Shakespearean drama in its two extremes. Full Fathom Five” (The Tempest) was the first of the next set of three Shakespearean songs by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), which seemed to me to, in conjunction, describe the different moods in which the playwright approaches Faery: in wonderment, in delight, and occasionally with somber respect and fear. Underwater bells tolled in a shimmering sound voiced by the female part of the chorus, giving way to a funereal, magical, very playful dirge as the male parts sang the verses in an undulating rhythm. The bells and words built up to a purpose and then just as intangibly slipped away into silence, ending on slow bells punctuating the stillness. Next came the joyous, lilting “Over Hill, Over Dale,” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), an arrangement clearly influenced by English and Irish folk songs or madrigals in the style of John Farmer (ca. 1570—ca. 1601). Finally, “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” (The Tempest) was slow and stately, carefully enunciated and held in choral unison, bass sinking meanwhile and soprano rising steadily and clearly above the middle parts.

Three songs from Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) followed, which all played with the power of the human voice to enact Shakespeare’s jarring poetry in song. “Come Away, Death”(Twelfth Night) in F major was mysterious, grave, thrilling, and eerie. The adjuration “to weep” hung out impossibly. As for “Lullaby” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), any baby hearing that opening note would be as far from sleep as humanly possible regardless of waves of rhythmic intoning from the bass section! Chanting in unison throughout its rendition of “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” (Macbeth), high-pitched shrieks from the alto and soprano sections mimicked the witches’ frothing brew. As all parts joined, the slower recitation of the lines “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog” soon escalated again into harsh and unrelenting cacophony. The choir transformed into a witches’ Sabbath driven wild in gibbering excitement, emitting sliding yelps and occasionally expressing themselves. with outlandish physical gestures I can only describe as “magical jazz hands.” Though only the female sections sang the concluding lines, a powerful ending stamp from all members imitated the opening door as Macbeth enters in the play itself. This song, obviously, was a big hit with the audience!

Two of the final arrangements hinted towards the future potential of re-envisioning and re-framing Shakespeare’s verses within a variety of musical styles. At the start of Matthew Harris’s (b. 1956) Who is Sylvia (The Two Gentlemen of Verona), soprano Corinne Wallace left the rest of the group and sashayed down the aisle while the choir and she engaged in a gospel call-and-response. In time with the beat, Director Bell often fist-pumped and excitedly bounded around as he directed the chorus, clearly “feeling it.” For the penultimate song, tenor Hoss Brock sang Kevin Olson’s (b. 1970): “A Summer Sonnet” (Sonnet 18), with its famous opening line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in the style of a nightclub singer such as Frank Sinatra while the choir backed him up. Many similar musical projects have been done lately that aim to convert Shakespeare’s Sonnets into pop or folk music using Elizabethan instruments such as the harp, flute, and viol. This kind of modern exploration of preexisting conven­tions and historical recovery injects twenty-first century sound into Shakespeare, allowing his words to be sung to music that has significant cultural meaning for us. The Grant Park Chorus’s performance, in gesturing to past “interpretations” of Shakespeare throughout history and incorporating contemporary renditions, both celebrates the expressive power of music and indicates the extraordinary flexibility and endurance of Shakespeare’s verse in adapting itself to a variety of genres and purposes across every century.


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…

Steppenwolf’s LookOut and Second City Theatricals – The People vs. Friar Laurence: The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet

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I watched Ron West and Phil Swann’s 2010 play The People vs Friar Laurence, The Man Who Killed Romeo & Juliet with my esteemed Shakespeare 400 colleague Casey Caldwell, whose review on its tragic violence appeared last week. Admittedly, Romeo and Juliet isn’t my favorite Shakespeare play, due in part to Act 1, scene 5’s unlikely love-at-first-sight scene. However, this staged reading convincingly met this and other difficulties by changing the characters’ secret motivations. For instance, to frustrate their strict parents and experience sensuality, Juliet and Romeo mutually (and musically) agree at the Capulet’s Masquerade Ball cum Fourth of July party to “USE EACH OTHER TONIGHT.” More reasonably, they become infatuated after conversing further and singing several duets.

As hilarious of a dark comedy as this staged reading proved to be, the ideological takeaway felt extremely bleak. While West and Swann’s play comically addressed many long-standing frustrations with Shakespeare’s play, it also as a production provoked the following extremely grave questions of its audience: What does a society look like in which lovers commit suicide? Or that effectively destroys its own future, along with any possibility of happiness, fertility, and dynastic continuity?

Much like our own, as it turns out. In The People vs Friar Laurence, the things that divide, define, not those that unify. Lest the audience conclude that the rivalries between the two families and the political situation in the Prince’s Venice has nothing whatsoever to do with our city of Chicago in the twenty-first century, the actors were outfitted at the start of the first scene in Cubs, White Sox, Bears, and (to my utter disgust) Packers sportswear. These are minor indications of deeper rifts to come between the families, the most notable of which occurring when Tybalt stabs Mercutio to death. Mercutio expires, groaning, “A plague o’ both your houses!” (Act 3, Scene 1)

Especially given its constant insistence on anachronistically transposing American culture and nationalism onto early modern Venice to Friar Laurence’s bemusement and vain protests, The People vs Friar Laurence speaks to current social issues in the US. Highlighted issues include street violence, hatred of the “other,” failing family structures, abusive patriarchy, greed, and debauchery. A major reason for the constant violence erupting between the Houses of Montague and Capulet is extreme boredom and affluence, as the cast explains in the first song, “It’s a Beautiful Day in Verona”:

FRIAR LAURENCE
I’VE GOT TICKETS FOR THE CARNIVAL
JUST LIKE THE ONE IN FLORENCE.
IT’LL BENEFIT THE UNDERPRIV’LEGED
KIDS HERE IN VERONA.

EVERYONE ELSE
PARDON US IF WE DON’T CARE…

ALL BUT FRIAR LAURENCE
WE’RE YOUNG AND RICH AND BORED AND
PRE-DISPOSED TO BEING JERKS!
WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE POOR
OR DOING VOLUNTEER WORK! 

Despite Friar Laurence’s own unabashed shenanigans with Lady Capulet, the Nurse, and most of Venice, his hapless struggles to unite two young people in love provokes sympathy, especially considering the Friar’s cynical perspective on a corrupt society in which alcoholism, prostitution, and drug abuse are rampant: “I’VE NOT BEEN TO HELL, BUT I SURE KNOW THE WAY!” When Lord and Lady Capulet aren’t hurling invectives at each other or their daughter, they bully, drink feverishly, and copulate with underlings. Romeo’s Apothecary deals in “poisonous” drugs—of the heroin, hashish, and methamphetamine variety in addition to arsenic, morphine, and cyanide—and seems oblivious to the fact that his customer will actually go through with his expressed intention to commit suicide. There is no mercy or understanding in this world, much less true love.

Throughout Shakespeare’s life he witnessed deadly conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics, English, Irish, and Spanish. In the midst of religious and racial conflict, a plague decimated London in 1592, causing upwards of 17,000 deaths, closing theaters, churches, and paralyzing trade. Scholars believe Romeo and Juliet was first staged after the theaters re-opened in 1594 or 1595, the first being the year in which Jewish doctor Roderigo Lopez was executed for the dubious charge of attempting to poison his patient, Queen Elizabeth I, while the latter is that in which Robert Southwell was hanged, drawn, and quartered for the crime of being a Roman Catholic, an execution that provoked much debate. When Shakespeare’s Mercutio threatens a plague on warring houses, the playwright knowingly has his character condemn and abandon an entire civilization—the arts, friends, and all—to utter devastation, because its only produce is vindictive, endless death like his own.

Though both the Montague and Capulet families occupy the same city, their inherited hate, stemming from a mysterious originary cause, destroys the public peace and disturbs Prince Escalus’s political machinations; hence the scapegoating of the Friar. The lovers’ deaths can’t possibly be the state’s fault, since this conclusion would necessitate change and repentance as occurs in the last scene of Romeo and Juliet. No one repents in West and Swann’s play. God (a character who never directly appears in Shakespeare’s pantheon) pardons Friar Laurence just prior to his hanging, but politely declines to bring back the dead. Supplementing the “gaps” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and “updating” the story, West and Swann’s additions indicate the startling degree to which Shakespeare’s own play-text emphasizes the dangers of polarization, blind hatred based on difference, rigidly defined self-identity, and a corrupt society’s inability to correct its own trajectory until far too late.


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 Improvised Shakespeare Company

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With other excited patrons, most clutching drinks from the theater bar, I joined a packed-out audience at the iO Theater on May 28, and waited to see why the Improvised Shakespeare Company is one of Chicago’s most popular weekend theater acts. Part of this group’s draw, of course, is the uniqueness of each performance. As the audience discovers prior to the show, this all-male acting company, suitably clad in white Renaissance laced shirts and breeches, improvises a play every performance night using “Shakespearean” language and plot devices. The title of each play derives from audience suggestions and neither plot nor dialogue can be recreated. Therefore, unless another critic went to see the same performance, this review is your only chance ever to read about the improbably titled play Prostitution, or Llamas,” improvised and acted by Matt Young, John Sabine, Asher Perlman, Brendan Dowling and Ric Walker.

How “Shakespearean” is this performance model? Obviously, Shakespeare’s plays themselves were repeatedly performed and such performances relied on the play text, though the plurality of Lear versions, for instance, indicates the play text’s adaptive fluidity. However, just because Shakespeare’s rhyming lines were already written does not mean that his comic actors recited them in that way, as I realized while watching this troupe connect with the crowd through their rhyming abilities. During this performance, the audience waited in suspense for the rhyme to be justified and usually burst into applause as each speaker concluded the second line of a couplet. Occasionally an audience member would suggest an ending (“ass” for “grass”), which the actor in rhyming difficulties would try to avoid using (“lass”). This jovial, bantering relationship between actors and audience evokes the role of the Shakespearean clown, or fool, who directly addressed and competed with spectators in wordplay.

The first scene showed farmer Henry (Brendan Dowling) and his loving wife Margaret (John Sabine) in the first of two subplots discussing how to improve their financial situation during England’s drought. “Heaven unto me did you send/And you are my bank account, and my little dividend!” exclaimed Henry. “Aye, and you, be ever happy—I’m tired of seeing you pouting/And we shall have a number, a number most routing!” responded Margaret. After debating selling the plentiful llamas in their field, or writing a children’s book about llamas, they decided that Henry must return to his old employment—moonlighting as stripper “Officer Mike” at the epic bachelorette party of Princess Elizabeth (Matt Young). There in the final act he met her friends: inexperienced Shauna, Sarah, Susan of the many ex-boyfriends, and perpetually dismal, milk-guzzling Deb, the girlfriend of a much older man (“When I stopped looking, I met Samuel. It’s so great. We just talk”). To everyone’s horror, Henry was unmasked as a married man, but pacified the girls by explaining his family’s plight.

The main plot involved the King of England (Ric Walker) insisting against Princess Elizabeth’s will that she marry the French dauphin, Prince Girard (played to coy Gallic perfection by John Sabine). Meanwhile, the Queen (Asher Perlman) and the dauphin carried on a passionate, secret affair. In a running joke, he constantly feared revealing France’s most important state secret—the water cycle—that could end England’s drought. “You are ze oxygen to mah fier, you are ze oxygen to mah wahter,” said Prince Girard lasciviously to the Queen, then covered his horrified mouth and gasped, “Ah have zaid too much!” In a second subplot, virginal woodcutter and orphan Edmund (Matt Young) journeyed through London’s streets to buy some love from ladies of the night. Having met the very weird courtesans “Beehive” (deep-voiced, slow-speaking), “Lydia, the Bat-Cave Dweller,” and “Rock,” Edmund began to get cold feet and eventually backed out: “I don’t like the scary way that one talks…I feel like I went down the wrong street.” Rhythmically stomping their feet in unison and converging around the terrified woodcutter in a wild dance that included swinging from the ceiling beams, they chanted, “You’ve got to make a choice! / Edmund, use your voice!” Several audience members were singing the catchy refrain at the bar during the intermission. After that impressive end to the first half, I felt that, were they ever to make an appearance, the llamas had no chance as rivals to the vivacious prostitutes.

A few problems emerged as the play concluded, but such is the comedic potential and license of the Improvised Shakespeare Company that these simply added meta-theatrical humor. The llamas dropped out of the plot almost entirely, but no one cared. A doubling nightmare ensued since Matt Young played both Princess Elizabeth and her suitor Edmund/Prince Edwardo of Spain, compelling him to constantly switch sides during “their” flirtatious conversation. In a rare listening failure, an actor mentioned the death of the King of France, to be corrected instantly by the dauphin and a few seconds later by a messenger entering to announce, “The King of Spain is dead.” “Yes, we already established that!” exclaimed another actor, joining in audience laughter. Ends needed to be tied up, and so the wedding priest inexplicably revealed himself to be the dauphin’s best friend Jean-Luc “in disguise!” Ultimately, Princess Elizabeth married Prince Edwardo (once Edmund), her mother married Prince Girard, and the couples’ powerful loves brought showers of rain and herds of llamas (imaginary, unfortunately) pouring into the landscape.

Besides the delight of seeing twenty-first-century actors with great chemistry compose poetry and prose in Shakespearean language, hearing constant anachronistic references and modern slang mixed in alongside has an incredibly comical and doubly relevant effect whether you know the Bard’s lingo or not. Past and present make beautiful comedy together, as Shakespeare himself realized. Just as his audience would have responded to the wild tavern scenes between Prince Hal and Falstaff during a king’s reign occurring generations before while simultaneously “getting” contem­porary allusions, so we also laugh both at the wit that parodies Shakespeare and the wit that mocks our own social behaviors and stereotypes.


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…