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.

Joffrey Ballet – Romeo & Juliet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rebecca 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.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra – A Distant Mirror

Yo-Yo Ma’s A Distant Mirror began with a bang, followed by a jingle. The beat of a riqq, an Arabic tambourine, rang out from the back of the main floor. Percussionist Cynthia Yeh made her way through the aisle to the front of the hall, pounding a joyful, syncopated rhythm. When she arrived at the foot of the stage, Ma’s voice boomed through the hall: “If music be the food of love,” he started, before a chorus of voices shouted “Play on!” Answering their own directive, the rest of the ensemble burst into the hall. Alongside another percussionist, eight cello-players marched through the audience to the stage with instruments fixed to their chests on “Block Straps,” an ingenious device (invented by Mike Block, one of Distant Mirror’s players and organizers) that allows cellists to move on their feet while playing. Finally, the ensemble took the stage to finish their processional piece, Hanacpachap Cussicuinin, a traditional Incan Catholic chant written in the Quechua language, arranged by Block for cello and percussion. This dramatic entrance set the tone for the rest of the performance, which mingled to spectacular effect the conventions of Western chamber music with performance traditions from around the globe.

A Distant Mirror would be best described as a celebration: of different cultural traditions, musical and otherwise; of percussive music, and of the cello as an instrument; of our pasts and of the present. The quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’s deaths ostensibly inspired the program, but the concert itself went on to take a much broader view, holding up a mirror to a world that at times seemed more immediate than “distant.”

Much of the music on the program was evidently chosen for its historical status, the first four pieces being more or less contemporary with Shakespeare and Cervantes. Hanacpachap Cussicuinin dates to the first decades of the seventeenth century and remains the earliest surviving example of notated polyphonic music in the New World. The three following pieces were gathered into A Distant Mirror Suite, each one representing a different early modern cultural tradition. Juan Arañés’s joyful dance tune, Chacona: La Vida Bona (ca. 1624), saw both percussionists accompanying a cello quartet, who clapped and stamped and sang “To life, to life, come to chaconne” in Spanish, all while playing their instruments. Claude Gervaise’s dances (ca. 1550s), also here arranged for cello quartet with percussion accompaniment, were decidedly Northern Renaissance in style, and highlighted a tradition in the midst of a major cultural shift: Gervaise was one of the first composers to notate secular dance tunes. Nikriz Peşrev offered an exciting example of early modern Turkish music, and allowed members of the cello octet to display their individual chops as they passed around short call-and-response solos. Its composer, Ali Ufki Bey (1610?-1675), was an Ottoman musician and Muslim convert of Polish birth who notated two anthologies of traditional Turkish music and translated the melodies of a Calvinist Psalter for the Middle Eastern modal system.

Despite the historical distance of these compositions, they seemed strikingly modern in arrangement, instrumentation, and performance style. Blaise Dejardin arranged Gervaise’s dances; Hanacpachap Cussicuinin, Chacona, and Nikriz Peşrev were all arranged by Block. Both arrangers updated the pieces such that it became delightfully difficult to distinguish old from new. Hanacpachap Cussicuinin, for instance, was composed well before celli were invented, but in its arrangement here sounded as if it were written specifically for marching cello octet.

Likewise, those pieces on the program written by living composers (one present on stage) bridged the gulf between past and present in fascinating ways. A recent composition, Colin Jacobsen’s A Mirror for a Prince drew on early seventeenth-century Persian music, including Zoroastrian musical traditions. Mario Diaz de Leon’s Anima evinced an eclectic mix of inspirations, including Buddhist chants and the hymns of medieval abbess Hildegard van Bingen; its use of quarter tones to express sorrow furthermore recalled Sephardic Jewish musical conventions as well as the heavy metal Diaz de Leon records as a solo artist. Shane Shanahan’s percussion duet Saidi Swing offered an object lesson in the evolution of Middle Eastern rhythm—one reinforced with a brief lecture from the stage on Arabic drumming techniques. And Giovanni Sollima’s Guglielmo Scrollalanza, inspired by an Italian legend that Shakespeare was a Sicilian emigrant, incorporated musical phrases reminiscent of Renaissance dance tunes while employing inventive performance techniques, such as playing cymbals with cello bows.

The program concluded with another Renaissance/modern-day hybrid, Block’s arrangement of Romance del Conde Claros by Francisco Salinas (1513-1590). Two encore selections, however, ultimately wrapped up the concert: Dejardin’s arrangement of Vaughn Williams’s Fantastia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and a reprise of Block’s arrangement of Arañés’ Chacona. These selections made a particularly appropriate end for this performance of historical and cultural interchange. As a very recent arrangement of an Edwardian-era variation on a sixteenth-century theme, Fantasia offered a lovely example of transhistorical collaboration. The reprise of Chacona circled back to the concert’s beginning, reiterating an exuberant melody encouraging listeners to celebrate “la vida bona” through music and dance.

As Ma explained from the stage, A Distant Mirror aimed to enliven the past not just to examine the global networks within which Shakespeare and Cervantes operated, but because looking backward can provide productive insight into our world today. The concert offered a means for far-flung cultures separated by space as well as time to speak to each other so that we might appreciate their contradictions and delight in their similarities. By teaching us to celebrate unity in difference, Ma insisted, such reflection can help us “do better and be better” as a people. This effort seemed particularly appropriate on the afternoon of the concert, in the dark aftermath of what had occurred overnight in Orlando. It was a hard day to feel happy or hopeful at all. But the joy and compassion that A Distant Mirror’s multicultural, interhistorical performance evoked made it feel for a moment as if we just might be able to make things right someday.


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.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Othello

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Photo: Liz Lauren

Othello is famously a play about difference. Most obviously, it is a play about racial difference. In Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s recent production, however, directed by Jonathan Munby and set in a present-day pseudo-American context, “difference” represents a moving target. The lines of difference constantly shift throughout the production to
emphasize various models of inclusion and exclusion based on race and ethnicity, to be sure, but also on religion, class, nationality, and—perhaps above all—gender.

The themes of inclusion and exclusion, tribalism and othering, are apparent from the first spoken scene, in which Roderigo and Iago convene outside Senator Brabantio’s home, evidently a condo in a building that, in its imposing, stripped-down neoclassicism, strongly resembles those around Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The men buzz on the intercom to Brabantio’s building, initially talking to him through the speaker; a physical wall separates the two malcontents from the Senator. As they deliberately stoke his racial and sexual anxieties, however, Brabantio’s alliances shift. He first only deigns to talk through the intercom’s speaker, and then opens a window to shout at Iago and Roderigo in person—but still maintains his distance from them behind a wall, remaining physically as well as socially above them.

Soon, though, Iago and Roderigo close that gap by making Brabantio imagine that they all have an enemy in common: the black Othello. Eventually, Brabantio descends and emerges outside, literally joining the same level as Iago and Roderigo. The model of difference in the scene, which was initially drawn according to class—the Senator putting himself above the common soldier and his friend—has now shifted along racial lines. Brabantio sets out with Roderigo—once “the worser” but now “good Roderigo”—to apprehend his daughter and “the Moor.”

On a dark city street, Brabantio confronts an impeccably dressed Othello and follows him to meet the Duke. The setting transforms into something that looks suspiciously like the White House’s Situation Room, images of which have been widely circulated in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. The resemblance is disturbingly apt, considering that the Venetian Duke has just been informed of an incoming military threat from an Islamic force, the “Turks,” or the Ottoman Empire. This military conflict between the West and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam, represents one vector of difference at work in the production, and fundamentally informs its approach to the play.

Munby has gone out of his way thus far to establish Othello as a Venetian insider in religious and military terms. Even before Iago and Roderigo take the stage, the performance opens with an extratextual scene of Othello and Desdemona’s wedding—a conspicuously Catholic ceremony during which Othello wears his military uniform, marking him not only as a general but also as a member of the Christian Venetian community.

Yet, when Brabantio interrupts the Duke’s meeting to complain about his daughter’s marriage to Venice’s greatest general, he treats Othello as an outsider, tossing around ugly, racially charged language. Othello is Christian, he is a respected member of the military, and he has just been asked to lead a dangerous campaign against a huge empire—but he is still the outsider here. In Venice, it seems he may never fully belong. This will change, however, when the scene shifts to Cyprus.

The DC-like backdrop rises into the ceiling, revealing a military installation closely resembling images of American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sirens sound and lights flash in warning when anyone comes in or out—here, the stakes of inclusion and exclusion are very high indeed. Men wearing desert camouflage fight the elements: high-strung, they are ready for violence and war. But of course, a storm destroys the Turkish fleet and contains the threat of battle. Othello and his men have arrived at Cyprus, ready to kill and be killed, and suddenly have nothing to do.

Also newly arrived is Othello’s wife. When Desdemona enters this military zone, she could not look more out of place. In contrast to the soldiers’ fatigues, she wears impractically high heels and carries a designer handbag. It is clear that this is not Desdemona’s space.

Here, though, Othello is one of the guys. And while the men still sometimes refer to him as “the Moor,” Othello’s racial difference is downplayed in Munby’s Cyprus. In the military, Othello has found a space where he belongs. He wears the same desert camo as the other soldiers. The uniform aligns them all. So, too, does, gender—for Othello is not only a military man on Cyprus, he is a man. His wife is now the outsider. And the longer she stays, the more she will stand out.

Take, for instance, the extratextual scene during and just after intermission. On stage, the soldiers entertain themselves with karaoke. Eventually, they will gang up on Desdemona as she enters wearing a fetching, bright blue ensemble: they follow her around the stage singing The Righteous Brothers’ classic “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.” She giggles and plays along, but her difference from them is never more apparent than it is at this moment. In its blocking and choreography, the scene pits the men, wearing combat fatigues and huge knives at their sides, against a willowy, super-feminine woman. At the back of the stage is a bulletin board with a large sign labeled “Wall of Shame.” It’s covered in photos of women, presumably the sexual conquests of the men on base. Evidently, the soldiers here treat women as disposable objects. And so however adorable the men’s musical bravado may seem, this scene ultimately sees Desdemona standing down a pack of large and frankly intimidating men in a way that grotesquely anticipates the very frightening violence of the play’s conclusion.

At that conclusion, as Desdemona dresses for bed, the men who sang to her will return, silently, like ghosts. They will assemble at the front edge of the thrust stage in a line, advancing on the small, lonely woman. She doesn’t see them, but they’re there, surrounding her. It is a display of an aggressive male gaze on a vulnerable female body. For the life of her, the production tells us, she’ll never fit in with them.

Significantly, though, Desdemona is not the only woman on the Cyprus base. Iago’s wife Emilia is also present—and in this production, she is a soldier. This treatment of Emilia is particularly interesting. She is a woman working desperately to survive in a man’s world. She wears combat fatigues, just like the men, and adopts a masculine posture that contrasts sharply with Desdemona’s aristocratic femininity.

Once Desdemona arrives, though, Emilia is treated as nothing more than another woman. Emilia has risen up through the ranks in an environment hostile to her sex, has worked to prove herself, training her body and instincts (as her impressive self-defense skills show late in the play). And just because she is a woman, she has been removed from her duties to carry around the purse of a privileged interloper, Desdemona, who treats her like a servant. As Emilia’s face and body language show throughout the first half, she clearly resents it. Eventually, however, in reaction to the frightening masculine aggression of the men around her, Emilia aligns herself with Desdemona. The women slowly begin to unite, creating in the end a community of two. They become more and more physically intimate throughout the second half of the play, finally embracing tenderly in Desdemona’s femininely appointed bedroom.

The women will make their own alliance, but it is the hyper-masculinity and endemic misogyny on the base that, in this production, seems to explain something about Othello’s quick turn, his willingness to blame Desdemona and do her such violence. He loves her, it seems, but she’s not one of them. On the base, she’s an outsider, and outsiders are not to be trusted.

Indeed, this toxic, tribalistic masculinity is only exacerbated by the conditions of a war that never comes: these men, Othello included, have been preparing for battle, for violence that has not materialized. It’s as if they need something to fight, something to exclude and cast out. It should have been the Turkish invaders, but they never arrived. So if the outsider does not show up, the men will find and fight an outsider within.

When Emilia finds Desdemona’s body in the last scene, she turns viciously on Othello. Suddenly he is not one of the guys at the base, he is not her commanding officer. He is nothing more than a Moor. Emilia’s racially charged language in this scene is often discomfiting for audiences who celebrate her as one of Shakespeare’s great feminist characters. But sadly, in this production, which highlights the myriad ways “difference” can be constructed and even weaponized, it fits.

In Venice, Othello was the outsider. Here on the base, the women have taken that role. But in the end, after he has turned on Desdemona for no good reason, Othello must be excluded from the community. Emilia, like the other Venetians, needs to find a way to make him different. That’s the thrust of the play, really: what can we use to impose difference upon someone we want to exclude for some reason? What can we do or say to make him not belong?

As the playtext and this CST production both suggest, the measure of “difference” is unstable and arbitrary. Its goalposts can be moved whenever it is convenient. As such, it is subject to manipulation by the likes of Iago, who in the end goes silent, refusing to explain anything. The play itself, too, refuses to offer any answers. Only this is clear: the real problem is the ideology of difference itself.


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.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Shakespeare Theater- A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Last week, Chicago-area elementary students and families were treated to a rare event: a live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream accompanied by Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play, directed and adapted by David H. Bell, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and actors from Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Both Shakespeare’s drama and Mendelssohn’s score were heavily edited and highly abbreviated, for this entertaining production at the Symphony Center functioned effectively as a teaching text for younger children. Taking the role of emcee, Maestro Edwin Outwater regularly paused from conducting to offer background about Mendelssohn and his music, introduce the play’s characters to the young audience, gloss major plot points, and even act as a meta-theatrical conduit between players and orchestra: “Maestro, can you give us some cool, swag, hip music for our entrance?” asked Bottom as the mechanicals prepared to perform their disastrous Pyramus and Thisbe. “I’ve got just the thing,” Outwater replied before launching the symphony into the players’ “Prologue.”

As Outwater reminded his audience, Mendelssohn (1809-1847) grew up enamored of Shakespeare. He and his sisters amused themselves as children by acting out various scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and Mendelssohn continued to draw inspiration from those texts throughout his life. The Mendelssohn family acquired a German translation (Schlegel) of Midsummer in 1826, when Felix was 17, and their young prodigy promptly composed a piano duet based on the comedy to perform at home with his sister Fanny. He went on to orchestrate the piece shortly thereafter, transforming it into a concert overture; its 1827 debut would be his first public performance, and the Overture would go on to become one of his most famous compositions. Later, in 1843, King Frederick William IV of Prussia commissioned him to write incidental music for a stage production of the play, the finished version of which incorporated and expanded upon his earlier Overture.

Throughout his career, Mendelssohn established a strong interest in recuperating and reimagining older texts. He was a devoted fan of J.S. Bach’s baroque compositions, which by the early years of the Romantic music period (ca. 1820s) were decidedly unfashionable. In 1829, he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion that radically re-arranged Bach’s score and refashioned the piece, originally written to accompany a Good Friday church service, into a stand-alone work. This performance established a tradition for performing the Passion as a concert piece and reinvigorated popular interest in Bach’s vocal works. In 1841, Mendelssohn composed a piano accompaniment to the Chaconne of Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin. Later Romantic composers—Liszt and Brahms among them—followed suit and rearranged Bach’s music for more up-to-date instrumental configurations, re-establishing Bach as a dominant influence on the evolving compositional landscape.

Mendelssohn’s musical interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is likewise a product of innovative reimagination. Unlike Bach, Shakespeare had continued to enjoy robust popularity throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, so the composer’s interest hardly recuperated any lost public estimation. However, it did sway the course of Romantic music, helping to amplify the growing vogue for thematic compositions that emphasized drama and lyricism. In its initial public iteration as the stand-alone Overture, Mendelssohn’s take on Midsummer kicked off a fashion for concert overtures—that is, pieces inspired by literature but not intended to accompany a staged production. Concert overtures became an essential form of Romantic music, eventually evolving into the “tone poem,” a characteristic form of the later Romantic period. In looking back to Shakespeare’s two-hundred-year-old play, Mendelssohn helped initiate an emergent compositional movement.

The second iteration of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer again reimagined the role of form. As incidental music, the final version was crafted to accompany a staged production of the play. Its movements follow the action of the plot, and also include a number of vocal pieces set to Shakespeare’s own verses (“Ye spotted snakes” and “What hempen homespuns,” among others). This time, however, Mendelssohn looked back not only to Shakespeare’s text for inspiration, but to his own work, incorporating his adolescent Overture and drawing from its musical themes—including the E-minor pitter-patter of dancing fairies and the strings’ Bottomesque “hee-haws”—to elaborate characterological motifs and highlight on-stage action.

Such an approach, looking back to move forward artistically, is not out of line with Shakespeare’s own patterns of authorship. “The Bard,” after all, is not famous for the originality of his plot lines. Midsummer itself borrows from classical mythology to tell what is in many ways a distinctly English fairytale. At the end of his career, Shakespeare (like Mendelssohn more than two centuries later) returned to his earlier work in Midsummer to reimagine the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta in yet “another key” in the tragicomic The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Last week’s performances at the Symphony Center, collaboratively produced between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, effectively presented a new, hybrid text of the two Midsummers. Designed with an audience of children in mind, the performance reworked the symphonic and dramatic versions into an accessible spectacle aimed at teaching newcomers about the play and Mendelssohn’s interpretation. Shakespeare’s text was heavily reduced to highlight the musical accompaniment, and much of the on-stage action was danced and mimed. (The performance, one could say, served to reimagine and recuperate the pre-modern theatrical staple of the “dumb show,” putting it to good use for the young audience; the dumb shows throughout the performance allowed the audience to gain a sense of character, place, and musical style without becoming lost in the complexities of Elizabethan English.) The production furthermore underscored the play’s potential for fantastical spectacle and physical comedy, showcasing the cast’s impressive acrobatic abilities as well as their talents for slapstick. Maestro Outwater provided editorial commentary and historical background, offering an interpretive access point for viewers so that they could grasp not only plot and character details, but listen for the ways that Mendelssohn’s score both represents and interprets the play.

This was a production with two clear objectives in mind: to educate, and to inspire appreciation in young people new to the performance hall. Ostensibly it aimed to teach the children in the audience about the plot of Shakespeare’s play and the sounds of Mendelssohn’s music, but in so self-consciously packaging its reinterpretation as a teaching text, the performance also managed to convey something important about the spirit of Shakespearean authorship and Mendelssohnian composition: what both owe not only to the processes of imagination, but re-imagination, too.


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.