Culinary Complete Works – In Shakespeare’s Kitchen

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As a theatrical chef, Shakespeare can serve you up some pretty wild dishes. His menu might begin and end with Richard III, starting with a vegetarian first course with ingredients of Richard’s “green and salad days,” and ending with “good strawberries” from the Bishop of Ely’s garden. The featured dish in the middle of course will come from Titus Andronicus, where Titus prepares a pasty made from Queen Tamora’s two evil sons. Tending bar will be the two Sirs, John Falstaff and Toby Belch.

Such menus lend themselves to the dramatic. When Queen Tamora asks what has become of her sons, Titus—routinely costumed these days in a tall chef’s hat—reveals the dish and declares: “Why, there they are, both baked in this pie!”

The anthropologists long ago taught us that food is central to culture. In addition to just keeping us alive, it expresses our environment, forms and reaffirms our social groups, and shapes the rhythm of our day. When I described the subject of this post to an anthropologist friend (as we were leaving a first-rate restaurant where the winter menu included corn chowder with green chile and marrow and pork chops with smoked pork belly, polenta and mushrooms, etc.), she simply said, “a meal is poetry and performance.”

It seems natural, then, that the yearlong cultural holiday of Shakespeare 400 Chicago should include at least thirty-eight meals, one for each of his plays. The idea began in a conversation about a Shakespearean meal between Chicago Shakespeare Creative Producer Rick Boynton and Alpana Singh, the celebrated sommelier and restaurateur. Alpana immediately thought, “this can’t just be about turkey drumsticks at the Renaissance fair. It’s not about what Shakespeare ate, or his characters might have eaten. Everyone who has gone through an English-language education has read Shakespeare. I still remember reading him in third-period English. Shakespeare is something we share now, today. Let’s gather great chefs, and let each one interpret Shakespeare in his or her own way.”

And so the chefs were recruited, each distinguished by the quality of their cooking and their unique approaches, but reaching across a range of neighborhoods and price points to reflect the culinary diversity of the city. Art Jackson at the Pleasant House Bakery immediately snareddemera Titus Andronicus and prepared a Roman-style braised pork pie with blood pudding, fennel, olives and spices. Tigist Reda of Demera prepared a royal Ethiopian feast for Henry VIII, including spiced beef tartare and chicken Doro Wat stewed with Berbere sauce. John Manion, an English major in college, reportedly exclaimed, “Only if I get Othello!” Dan Pancake, another English major, was heard to proclaim, “Shakespeare’s my dude!”

But what does it mean when a chef interprets Shakespeare? What stirs in the mind that stirs the sauce? Alpana Singh remarked that all chefs have access to the same ingredients and the same sauces, just as writers have access to the same words. All the magic, the singular mixture, the sublime taste, come after that shared beginning. The chef is as fully an interpreter as the director, or actor, or literary critic, and the restaurant is as fully a collaborative, creative space as the theater.

Some approaches were thematic. Tony Mantuano of Café Spiaggia went full Veronese to celebrate Romeo and Juliet. J. Joho at Everest went to ancient Rome to create dishes in honor of Julius Caesar. Michael Kornick of mk the Restaurant collaborated with an interdisciplinary artist to create an evening-long event around The Merchant of Venice, where guests would “borrow” gold and silver ducats to buy Venetian culinary creations, Italian wines and Amaro cocktails while listening to Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Gabrieli.

Others focused on the combination of ingredients and the preparation to find their line of interpretation. Ryan McCaskey sought out contrasting flavors to express the clashing moods of The Winter’s Tale at his Acadia restaurant, only to bring them together in harmony at the end. Tanya Baker at The Boarding House carefully basted a young chicken until it was tender, in honor of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and served it with creamy polenta, pickled asparagus and a sour cherry sauce. Reflecting on the British wilderness setting of Cymbeline, Iliana Regan served a continuously varying selection of foraged vegetable crudités to diners at her restaurant Elizabeth.

Naha.jpgCarrie Nahabedian at Naha chose Measure for Measure at the encouragement of her brother-in-law, who teaches Shakespeare. The title seemed wondrously culinary. The menu she designed expressed the play’s contrasts of passion and rationality, and of temptation and purity: Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Tarte Tatin of Rhubarb, Young Chicken with Root Vegetables, Floating Island with Summer Fruits. Response among diners at first was slow, so the staff developed a theatrical printed menu and Carrie promoted it on social media, and it took off. What had been planned as a feature for two weeks ran for four months. “The Tarte Tatin was huge,” she said, “and I was making it every night.” Nahabedian made changes of ingredients and preparations as diners responded, staff made suggestions, and purveyors brought new foodstuffs with the shifting season. “Once apricots were gone,” she concluded, “we had to stop.”

The Culinary Complete Works ran from late February to mid-December, 2016, often in multiple locations at any one time, predominantly in the central city, but also in neighborhoods from Berwyn to Uptown to Beverly. Overhead, Chicago nights were filled with Michelin stars. And then, yes, it had to stop. Each meal was, as my friend put it, poetry and performance. But feasts like these are difficult to memorialize, even more difficult than either verse or theater. You can print a poem, or tape a performance. You can even print a menu, videotape a preparation, or put a photo of a dish on your Facebook page. But the singularity of food-as-culture is that we have as yet no way to reproduce the sensation of that first taste as it touches the tongue.


Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.

Georges Bigot + Theatre Y – Macbeth

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This production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the fruitful culmination of a yearlong collaboration between Melissa Lorraine’s Theatre Y and the French actor-director Georges Bigot, a major figure in Ariane Mnouchkine’s famous Théâtre du Soleil. Mr. Bigot brings to this new staging of Macbeth an unapologetically dystopian vision of our contemporary political reality: “In this very fragile moment in the USA, I propose in the city of Chicago to share an underground nightmare. The [US] election is a time where we can [approach] a lot of themes…. Manipulation, power, truth, lie, shadow, light…. And also fear.”

Macbeth was written with a kind of frenzied haste during the nightmare of the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 and its bloody aftermath. The failed attempt by a group of disaffected Catholic gentlemen to assassinate King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), his family, government, and the entire political establishment by blowing up the parliament house was an exercise in terrorism avant la lettre. If it had succeeded, the plot would have killed hundreds of people and destroyed all the buildings within a 500-yard radius of the parliament house, including Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall. The horror of 9/11 inevitably comes to mind.

But if the plot itself was nightmarish, the fallout was even more so. The surviving plotters were captured, tortured, and executed in two batches, hanged, drawn and quartered in a grisly public ritual that haunts Macbeth from beginning to end. “Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops” (1.2.22) was the way the plotters were eviscerated while they were still alive, their bodies slit open and their entrails pulled out and burned in front of their very own eyes. The severed heads of the condemned were then mounted on poles and displayed on London Bridge for the purpose of public deterrence, as echoed in Macduff’s jeering threat to Macbeth:

Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o’th’time:
We’ll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit,
‘Here may you see the tyrant’

(5.8. 23-27)

What makes these lines so subversive is that they effectively switch the roles of perpetrator and victim: instead of the plotters’ heads placed on display, Macduff imagines that of a tyrannical king being held up for public mockery and scorn. This equivocal treatment of words—saying the same thing with directly opposite intention—goes to the very heart of the play. Macbeth is not just about violence; it is above all about the violence enacted on language in which opposites (foul/fair, truth/lie) collapse inward on each other and how language and violence are interconnected. Equivocation is the key to the play’s obsession with doubling and double meanings. It was a word that resonated throughout Shakespeare’s London after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The trial and execution of the Jesuit leader Henry Garnet, who was accused of being an accessory to the plot, brought to light his infamous Treatise on Lying and Dissembling, which justified the use of equivocation in the extreme cases of interrogation and torture so that the suspect could sidestep incriminating himself and others.

What a close reading of the play yields is that equivocation is not the exclusive practice of the Weird Sisters but of all the characters, including “gracious” King Duncan who promises to promote Macbeth in one breath (“I have begun to plant thee, and will labor / to make thee full of growing”) and designates his son heir to the kingdom (Prince of Cumberland) in the next. Equivocation, Shakespeare seems to suggest, is the inevitable default position of everyone in a society where telling the truth can be dangerous, even fatal and where lying has become the modus operandi of all and sundry.

All this makes Macbeth both universal and topically applicable to our current world of political spin and cover-up. The e-mails hacked by WikiLeaks have revealed Hillary Clinton’s double-talk of saying one thing to Corporate America and the exact opposite to the American public, while the threat of real post-election violence lurks below the surface of Donald Trump’s bombastic speeches. Political discourse has become seemingly polarized. Both presidential candidates trade insults back and forth, pivoting away the moment they are put on the spot. Evasiveness and deceit from politicians and the mainstream media outlets alike are on constant display as naked techniques for the cynical manipulation of power. An increasingly restive and disillusioned electorate is confronted with spin and counter-spin. Subterfuge trumps substance, rhetoric usurps reality.

This is what Georges Bigot means by the “underground nightmare” of Macbeth, a play in which language and violence are never far apart. It is a nightmare that has its historical origins in the religious politics of Shakespeare’s England in which a propaganda war was waged between a beleaguered Protestant government and Catholic dissidents spearheaded by underground Jesuits. But it is a nightmare that is still with us, played out discursively in the endless spin and partisan punditry of CNN and Fox News. Bigot brings to these topical concerns a visceral power by giving us a vibrant modern-day dress production of the Scottish Play in which politics, language and sex go hand in hand. Powerful women loom large in this world where fragile masculinity is under constant threat from empowered femininity, personified by the Witches and Lady Macbeth. Like Hillary Clinton in debate with her Republican opponent—most recently, likening Trump to a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin—Lady Macbeth taunts and goads her husband by questioning his manhood: “When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.48). The Weird Sisters are similarly gutsy, emanci­pat­ed young women in torn jeans with female gender symbols painted on their bellies. They are more anarchic than scary, devil-may-care feminists who revel in their diabolical mischief. Even the drunken Porter (perhaps the most subversive character in the entire play) is cast as an inebriated corporate party girl holding a champagne bottle in one hand and her high-heel shoes in another. As Macduff chides her with the line, “Was it so late friend, ere you went to bed that you do lie so late?,” we see her relieving herself behind a wall, a clever example of the triple meaning of the word Elizabethan word “lie” (tell an untruth, be recumbent, urinate).

The epitome of the feminine control of language in the play, Lady Macbeth (Katie Stimpson) is a tall, powerful femme fatale, who enters smiling and dancing in a Japanese kimono to the sardonic strains of the classic song Que serà, serà.” There is a wonderful resonance here of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a similar drama about an overreacher who reads words too literally:

If we say that we have no sin
We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.
Why, then, belike we must sin and consequently die.
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this? Che serà, serà?
What will be, shall be? Divinity adieu! (Puts down Bible.)[1]

The heavily ironic implications of this song (“The future is not ours to see”) prepare the ground for the internally conflicted monologues of Macbeth (Brendan Mulhern), trapped between free will (“We still have judgment here”) and predestination, lingering doubts about the Witches’ prognostications and a desperate need to take them at literal face value. In the end, like Faustus, Macbeth rejects the Catholic faith for Calvinist fundamentalism—with the inevitable violent consequences of taking truth too literally.

New to the classical repertory, Mr. Mulhern brings his background in comedy and improvised theater to bear in an impressive, high-energy performance shot through with moments of grim humor—whether he is leading his guests to the coronation banquet in a song-and-dance routine or strapping on his armor and then taking it off again in a fit of comic indecisiveness. His soliloquies constantly transform him from a smiling self-confident man of the world into a grimacing, anguished monster, the inevitable Janus face of power politics. The Banquo ghost scene is a model of choreographed ensemble acting as Mulhern/Macbeth veers violently between a carefree hedonist and an anguished victim of his own nightmares. I have never seen a more convincing portrayal of power unraveling before our very eyes, the nightmare that lurks below the smiling brittle facade of the homo politicus.

Other strong performances were also on display: Héctor Álvarez as a diminutive but indomitable Malcolm; the physically impressive Arch Harmon as King Duncan, and Katie Stimpson as a terrifying yet sympa­thetic Lady Macbeth. Mr. Bigot’s prodigious experience as an actor in the French theater makes for a tightly controlled, cohesive production. He has harnessed the creative energy of these young Chicago actors and transformed what might so easily have been an uneven set of performances into a disciplined ensemble cohesion. Enhanced by witty musical interludes and the creative use of chiaroscuro lighting and dramatic sound effects, this vibrant new production of Macbeth highlights the play’s inexorable downward spiral from military triumph to political ruin, from the dream of worldly success to the nightmarish reality of tyranny in which lies have usurped truth and equivocation seems to be the only means of survival.

[1] A-Text (1604), 1.1. 43-48.


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Alfred Thomas is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches courses on medieval and Renaissance literature. He has published eight books, including A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare (2007), Prague Palimpsest: Writing, Memory and the City (2010), Shakespeare, Dissent, and the Cold War (2014), and Reading Women in Late Medieval Europe: Anne of Bohemia and Chaucer’s Female Audience (2015). His new book project is tentatively titled Maimed Rights: Shakespeare, Religion, and the Middle Ages.

Foro Shakespeare – Enamorarse de un incendio

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The title of the play Enamorarse de un incendio, which roughly translates as “falling in love with a fire,” comes from the final scene of the play, in which a group of screenwriters play a version of Pictionary and discuss their plans for a television script. One character describes a painting of pyromania as “like being in love with forest fires.” The association of love with fire, and all of its wild, motivating, and destructive connotations, signals the play’s relationship with Romeo and Juliet. This play, written and directed by Chilean playwright Eduardo Pavez Goye, is inspired by the themes of Shakespeare’s play, but it is not a direct adaptation. Instead, we are offered three new interwoven stories of star-crossed love.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the production, imported from Mexico’s Foro Shakespeare, follows these lovers through desire, commitment, and heartbreak. The narrative that frames the play concerns three screenwriters tasked with revising a script at the home of their assistant. They are telling a love story, and their personal lives intervene. Two of the writers, Vicente and Viviana, are former lovers who separated after a domestic tragedy, and the latter is now romantically involved with the third writer, a younger man. As the tensions between these writers mount, two other stories are spliced in: Julián, a young artist, falls in love and elopes with the wife of an art dealer and Renata, a young woman in financial and emotional distress, dies, leaving behind a suicidally devastated lover.

The individual performances are a highlight in the production. The cast of four brings an emotional intensity to their characters across the three stories, each performer playing multiple roles and exploring many shades of love. Verónica Merchant and Luis Miguel Lombana give particularly impressive performances as the pair of older lovers, communicating a shared history and unfinished business. Hamlet Ramírez plays several versions of the young lover, emphasizing restraint and never falling into cliché. Itari Marta, though, anchors the production with commanding performances as Celeste, the screenwriter’s manic assistant, Renata, the dying young woman in debt to the mob, and Marlene, an artist’s muse. Swinging between tears and laughter, Marta’s characters are emotionally raw and exposed. In a scene where Renata confesses her failed dog fighting exploits to her mother, she is frightened, guilty, and unhinged. In another scene, playing Celeste, she stands in the foreground silently reacting to a phone call while the other characters argue behind her. A range of emotions wash over her face as she hears devastating news, crystalizing the heightened feelings of the play.

The production features three simultaneous performance spaces: a box set of a small living room; a large screen above the set that displays live video of the performance filmed by two camera operators; and a “backstage” space off right with a prop table and a costume rack. The performers are nearly always visible to the audience as they move on and off stage and as they are filmed and projected on the screen. This spatial arrangement reflects and reproduces the screenwriters’ narrative as they discuss the writing of a love story for television, while also being transformed into a simulation of television during the performance. The audience is constantly reminded of the actors’ work as actors in addition to the reality of the characters they portray. It also encourages the audience to consider the differences between live and filmed performances. While the screen offers the heightened intimacy of close-ups and guides the viewers’ focus, it also flattens and distorts the bodies that are visible below. It allows the play to roam between versions of love as real or artificial, expressed or enacted, literally three dimensional or two dimensional.

The projected images that double the performers, the camera operators who move in and around the performance spaces, and the visible backstage emphasize the performative and mediated nature of the play. Throughout the production, we see characters whose interactions are refracted through external objects, including a television script, a painting, and numerous cell phones. The characters feel intense emotions, but their conversations are often halting or one-sided. When the audience sees the performers’ bodies enlarged and flattened on the screen, or when we see them change costumes, dab makeup, and mentally and emotionally prepare for the next scene, it calls attention to love as an internally felt emotion and love as external displays for others.

As a mostly English-language-monolingual member of the audience, I have to admit that I found much of the Spanish text of the play inaccessible. Captions, displayed stage left on a flat screen monitor, summarized and commented on the action of the play, but torrents of expressive language washed over me. This had an effect similar to seeing a non-English opera performance, where emotion, movement, and spectacle are heightened and privileged over the discursive content. The actors’ vocal and physical performances conveyed the relationships and conflicts of the play in ways that felt precise, but also broad and archetypal.

The language barrier also added a dimension to the themes of the performance. In each of the stories, we see divisions between insiders and outsiders. Viviana and Vicente share a past that the other characters cannot access; Julían exploits his relationship with the art dealer as he separates him from his wife; and Renata’s parents play largely unspeaking mirrors to a love story they only hear about after the fact. My experience of Enamorarse de un incendio highlighted the ways audiences are always outside of a performance, voyeuristically expe­riencing the lives, actions, and emotions of the characters. In this way, the production allows the audience to explore the contours of love, while also recognizing that, like Romeo and Juliet, lovers always create their own worlds.


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

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Civil Strife

New Rule: Those who do not repeat history are doomed to not learning from it. By repeat, I mean on the stage. Don’t try it in real life.

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Every performance of history is a kind of rehearsal for life. We glimpse in the passions of the past the tune we may dance to in the future. Hip-hop founding fathers spellbind us in the Chicago Loop, while indie-rock Plantagenets cavort at Navy Pier.

The effect of Tug of War: Civil Strife is arguably very different from the effect of an individual Shakespeare history play all by itself. Richard III is about, well, Richard III. Henry VI Part 2 is about Richard, Duke of York and Queen Margaret. But when you add in Henry VI Part 3 and weave them together over six hours, the individuals recede, and larger patterns emerge. York, Margaret, and Richard remain enthralling and appalling as stage figures, to be sure, but their singular domination over history itself is less, because each rises and falls so fast.

History is of course not what happened, but a story about what happened. Too much happened to too many people to recount every detail. So history is an art of subtraction, selecting out what can produce a coherent story that still suggests the “too much.” Theater in turn makes its own selection. It picks out a few individual people and forces to confront and entwine with one another. Theater re-sequences their world and seeks for emotion as the fulcrum of meaning.

Civil Strife is story upon story upon story upon story: Barbara Gaines reworking Shakespeare reworking the chronicles reworking something that maybe happened. What comes to the fore are emotional choices gone bad: hate over love, faction over common good, mine over ours, domination over decency, service and duty over just staying at home.

Sometimes the pathway from English history to our history is short, as when Kevin Gudahl as the demagogic rogue Jack Cade mimics Donald John Trump adorned with what might be taken for a Brexit button. As Gina Buccola says in a previous post, “The media circus, the rock music soundtrack, the forced patriotism and the faux religious devotion—it all seems uncomfortably familiar.”

At other times the connection of past to present is more oblique, or admits of a possible contrast. Is political murder quite so easy anymore? Are there no laws? But the step is never large from medieval to modern, from endless war to endless war, from endless ambition to endless ambition, from chaos to chaos.

Shakespeare on stage gives abstraction a local habitation and a name, whether the character is the Duke of York or of Gloucester or simply First Soldier. Even minimalist settings, as in Tug of War, have an inherent naturalism, for the bodies of the actors are a mere few feet away from us, or right next us in the aisle. Yet Salman Rushdie has argued that naturalism in the right hands becomes so overwhelming that it breaks through to a dreamlike mystical surreality or even magical realism.

Something like that happens halfway through Tug of WarCivil Strife as Queen Margaret issues her half-mad curses and prophecies. As her fantasies begin to come true, the remaining warriors are seized with dread and are haunted by ghosts. Margaret’s words become apparitions, rash deeds, and neurotic mental states.

Magical reality in theater takes us closer to history, not away from it, moving us toward the other history below and beyond politics or economics or warfare. This is the interior history of human suffering. As York says when his enemies have foolishly provided him with soldiers: “You put sharp weapons in a madman’s hands.” In opposition to those weapons stand our knowledge of the past, and the power of theater to reproduce it. We pray they are the tools of sanity.


Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Foreign Fire

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If there is one word everyone uses to describe Tug of War, it is “epical.” Six hours, over sixty characters (plus “Soldiers,” “Band,” and “Chorus”), covering a century of events—and that’s just Part 1: Foreign Fire.

Few directors can manage anything this massive. Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Rose Rage more than a decade ago was memora­ble,  monumental and still only half as long as Tug of War will be by the time it wraps up this autumn with Part 2: Civil Strife. In the wrong hands, the result would be chaos. But the right directorial decisions instead can make it deeply tragic, leavened with pathos and comedy, so that the lessons of history come home. And that, in the end is what makes it epic.

Barbara Gaines has made critical and daring decisions in assembling Tug of War out of Shakespeare’s history plays. The top-level decision was to separate out the wars between England and France from those among the English themselves, giving us the two-part structure. The second was to open with the play Edward III, now generally recognized as a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, treating it as a prequel to the very familiar Henry V and the less-known Henry VI Part 1.

As we would expect from Gaines and Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the production is deeply respectful of the Shakespearean texts. There is no presumptuous re-writing and no awkward attempts to interweave the three plays. Allowing for merciful cuts, they are strung together like beads on a rosary of national prayer.

This in turn creates challenges. The three plays are written at different times and stylistically very different. Edward III features the highly rhetorical blank verse that Kyd learned from Christopher Marlowe, interspersed with fits of early-Shakespearean rhyming. It is followed by the mature language of Henry V, one moment royal oratory, the next moment the plain speech of common soldiers or the comically rendered accents of various ethnic groups. Then with Henry VI Part 1, it’s back to an early rhetorical style, with occasional glimpses of Shakespearean magic.

The second challenge is the sheer number of characters. Sixty named characters in five hours running time means introducing a new character every five minutes, if they were strung out evenly. Which they are not.

If the shifty language and multiple characters create two challenges, then scene construction creates a third. Sometimes the action rattles along in nearly indistinguishable short scenes of French and English shouting at each other, followed by incoherent battles. Alternately, there are long, almost slow-motion scenes, as when King Edward III tries to seduce—and then to rape—the Countess of Salisbury, or the famous scene of “Harry in the night” before the Battle of Agincourt. The Shakespeare-Kyd script is like a series of short stories interspersed with the odd novella.

There are a lot of ways to mess this up, but one big way to make it work: Trust the material. I’ve seen too many contemporary productions that turn to farce, or rewriting, or forced messages, to cover up their lack of faith in the plays. Too bad, especially when Shakespeare shows them the solutions.

First, let the language be. Skilled actors adjust their delivery to the varied contours and pacing of the language, and the audience adjusts too, and quickly. It’s when actors are fighting the language that audiences get restless.

Second, double up the characters and give the trusted actors a long leash. The doubling of parts was an economic necessity of the Elizabethan theater, and Shakespeare has constructed his plays to allow for the doubling. When it’s done right, it becomes part of the fun. Where will Kevin Gudahl or Larry Yando or Karen Aldridge show up next? Which lead actor is under the hat of the Blue Cap Soldier? And Gaines has indeed given Gudahl and Yando and Aldridge and others their long leashes to be histrionic or solemn or clownish or whatever it takes to move things along.

Finally, let the short scenes be short and the long scenes be long. Abrupt transitions among the short scenes are covered with music or foolery or stylized stage movement. As for the long scenes—they are at the heart of Shakespeare’s earliest theatrical innovations. They have a specific contour to them, which he uses with increasing mastery throughout his career. Two characters confront each other. One is in a very fixed position emotionally, but gradually, as the confrontation unfolds, the fixed character begins to give away, and ends up in the diametrically opposite emotional position from where he or she began. Think of the “willow cabin” scene in Twelfth Night, when Viola/Cesario comes to woo Olivia, who begins in absolute refusal and ends head-over heels infatuated. Or Much Ado, where Benedick goes from resolved bachelor to “horribly in love.” In the tragedies, the “closet scene” is a perfect example, where Gertrude begins accusing Hamlet of having “much offended your father” (meaning Claudius) and ends with her heart cleft in twain. Or King Lear beginning as a regal bully confronting Regan and Cornwall, and ending shut out of doors, mad, and weeping.

The Henry V scene of “Harry in the night,” walking among his soldiers, meditating on his own responsibility for the deaths that will follow, and begging the God of Battles to “think not upon my father’s fault” shows the art of the long scene in its mature form. The scene in which Edward III attempts to seduce and then rape the Countess of Salisbury—the very scene that leads to the attribution of the play to Shakespeare—has to be one of his earliest experiments with the technique. It is, as has often been observed, a first draft for his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. But here Lucrece lives, persuading and shaming the king into conquering his lust.

As the scene (okay—technically two consecutive scenes that play as one) unfolds from its beginning to its long middle, I found myself wondering at first why it was there—what was it doing in the midst of a play-cycle about war? But as the scene evolved, its point became clear, and it was the first iteration of the underlying point of the whole epic. How do we overcome those savage emotional impulses that drive humans—not just them, but us—to do physical harm to others?

Once upon a time we were told in school that the Shakespearean history plays represented some sort of moral tale about the value of stable, conservative, divinely sanctioned government, but it’s hard to give that much credit after the complete savagery of the twentieth century. Instead, Gaines gently de-historicizes the action, partly through the costuming, which I would call grunge-chic, and partly through the stage design. She pulls the action first toward all wars, and then toward our wars.

The program is laced with quotes from participants in America’s wars, from 1776 to 1918. None is more central to Tug of War than Lincoln’s First Inaugural:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The evolution of the long scene in Edward III drives us to this stark truth—that the better angels can prevail, though too often, too late. Edward’s shame overcomes his lust. At Calais, he again remembers to “master our affections,” and pardons the burghers who have offered their lives to ransom the city. At the gates of Harfleur, Henry V restrains the “dogs of war” that would wreak murder and rapine upon the hapless city. Each time, though, the restraint is temporary, and more violence breaks out, just as a long and horrible war ensued before America’s better angels restored Lincoln’s union.

Gaines has made it her project to show the wars through the eyes of the common soldier. Who better to supply her the material than the wise and eloquent child of a glove-maker, armed with a high-school education, who, legend tells us, poached deer before running off to join the theater? What more to learn from our own long scenes of bitterness than how the better angels of our nature might touch our own heartstrings in this time of violent passions?


Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.

Filter Theatre – Twelfth Night

l-r Oliver Dimsdale and Poppy Miller in Filter Theatre Company's 'Twelfth Night' - photo credit Robert Day, DSC_0864.JPG

Shakespeare may not have been a punk rocker, but Twelfth Night is probably his most punk-rock play. It certainly is in Filter Theatre’s version at the Upstairs studio theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The play, a remount of a 2006 production created for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival and directed by Sean Holmes, revels in the play’s chaotic, youthful, and anti-authoritarian plot about a group of ne’er-do-wells partying and plotting the demise of their pretentious overseer. In this play, the carnivalesque context of the Elizabethan Twelfth Night is recast as a rock show, complete with live music, tallboys of lager, and swaggering performances.

The production’s concept is visible as the audience enters the performance space, designed to look more like the Empty Bottle, one of Chicago’s venerable PBR-soaked rock venues, than a space for traditional theater. The stage is set with tables loaded with music gear—keyboards, analog synthesizers, MacBooks, and a mixing board—as well as a full drum kit, bass guitar, microphone stands, and assorted props, beer cans, and debris.

The show begins as the performers tune instruments, check microphone levels, and chat with the audience, and the play’s opening lines are pitched as brainstorming during band practice. Harry Jardine as Orsino rehearses the first phrase several times, “If music be the food of…,” and the audience completes it yelling “love!” This initiates a raucous jam session, with Orsino conducting the other performers as band members. Finally, from the balcony in the audience, he finishes the opening lines: “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it.” At this point, the relationship between actors and audience is set, Filter takes Orsino’s exhortation as a mission statement, and they offer a celebration of excess during their brisk ninety-minute set.

Although this might sound like a jarringly revisionist version of the play, celebrations of Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany, in Elizabethan England were notoriously rowdy affairs. By the sixteenth century, the feast day, marking the end of the Christmas season, had evolved into a Feast of Fools, a blasphemous carnival holiday. Anne Barton, in her introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare, explains that it was “a period of holiday abandon in which the normal rules and order of life were suspended or else deliberately inverted, in which serious issues and events mingled perplexingly with revelry and apparent madness.” The modern rock concert, complete with overwhelmingly loud music, flowing booze, provocative fashion, and occasionally dancing and assorted debauchery, is a fitting contemporary equivalent, a break from the rules of everyday life.

Filter’s production emphasizes the punk rock ethos of the play by cutting the script to feature the revelry and hijinks of Sir Toby’s gang and Feste’s songs. The centerpiece of the production is a rendition of “What is love” as a folk-punk anthem that would make the Mekons proud. It begins with Sir Toby, played by Dan Poole as the center of the party and the only character in ragged Elizabethan ruff, doublet, and hose, waking up in the middle of the night, hung over, and doing physical comedy with a bag of chips, while muttering lines from the song. The scene—and the song—escalates as the audience joins in a game of catch with foam balls and a Velcro hat on Sir Andrew’s head. Meanwhile, the crowd is invited to clap and sing along, a dozen audience members are invited on stage to dance, and a pizza guy shows up to pass around boxes of hot slices.

The audience is explicitly complicit in this disorder, and when Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio shuts it down, he scolds us too. Played as a killjoy heavy metal gear head, he explodes at the late-night musicians, but later—prompted by Maria’s deceit—he puts on a show of his own. He struts around the stage and the audience in yellow hot pants, knee socks, and nothing else, dancing and playing air guitar. In this production, our alignment with the revelers, and Malvolio’s hypocritical willingness to obnoxiously celebrate himself, makes his eventual downfall more humorous than horrifying.

Through an impressive trick of editing and double casting, the production keeps the small ensemble of performers involved in the party. Jardine plays Sir Andrew as well as Orsino, Sandy Foster plays both Feste and Maria, and Amy Marchant plays Viola and her twin Sebastian—the other minor characters are cut or absorbed. With only minor costume changes—the addition of a clown nose for Feste for instance—the characters move in and out of scenes and songs seamlessly, increasing the velocity of the performance and blurring the lines between the nobles and the servants. Through it all, Foster’s Feste punctuates the chaos with her menacing snarl and jittery Ian Curtis-like kicks and punches.

This unruly spirit, and the audience’s participation in it, also infects the love stories. When Marchant’s shipwrecked Viola arrives in the Illyria rock club, she is wet and staggering through the audience. After marveling at her surroundings, she asks the audience for a disguise, a man’s jacket and hat. She tries on a couple of offerings before settling on a leather jacket and a knit hat from the balcony. Placing this costuming choice in the hands of the audience reinforces the collaborative nature of the production and positions the audience as a confidant. Later Viola, in her “Cesario” disguise, is wooed by Olivia with an erotic bass solo, reveling in an excess of love and music much like Orsino at the beginning of the play.

By the time the entire cast performs the closing number, “When that I was and a little tiny boy (With hey, ho, the wind and the rain),” the servants have partied, Malvolio is chastened, true identities are revealed, and pairs of lovers are united. Time has untangled the knots that Viola could not. But order has not been restored—not entirely. The band packs up its gear, and the club turns on the house lights, but there is the sense that things have been transformed. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus identifies the punk spirit of the twentieth century in Johnny Rotten growling about anarchy and tearing down walls of British respectability. Filter Theatre is overturning conventions too, but it is also building spaces for exuberance, joy, and love—an excess of it.


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

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Othello

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Shakespeare with words—at last!

I have written here about the Russian Measure for Measure and the Hamburg Ballet production of Othello—both wonderful. But after these, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Othello fell on my ears like a mad torrent.

It is an odd and useful experience to see Shakespeare without his words. It brings out how much more there is than just the script. There is setting and costume, expression and gesture, motions of the body, music and laughter, grunts, cackles, and screams of pain and agony.

But restore the words after their absence and they are fresh again. The feeling was particularly strong seeing Othello danced by the Hamburg Ballet and acted by Chicago Shakespeare Theater on successive nights.

We are correctly comfortable with the notion that Shakespeare invented a new dramatic language. He inherited the lofty poetic rhetoric of Thomas Sackville and Christopher Marlowe, ideal for denoting the elevated sentiments of noble characters. He then created a second, prosaic language out of the mouths of common people. In between them, he molded a third language in blank verse that is beautiful in the mouth and on the ear, and yet adapted to the rhythms of natural speech. Initially these languages are distributed among the characters according to social class, but in time Shakespeare dares to mix things up, and give gutter language to nobles and poetry to common folk.

From its opening lines, Othello rings the changes of Shakespeare’s dramatic language:

Roderigo Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
Iago
‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:
If ever I did dream of such a matter,
Abhor me.

Roderigo’s outburst resolves into scannable iambic, only to be disrupted again by Iago’s curse, and resolved again—almost—into meter. In the process, their accents, their voices and their characters are established. But quickly we revert to Iago’s vulgar prose:

…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

though even here Shakespeare cannot resist the word play: “coursers” and “cousins,” “gennets” and “germans.” This wedding of coarse outburst with fantastical figures of speech accelerates as Iago fevers Othello’s jealous imagination:

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on—
Behold her topp’d?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk.

Many scenes later, as Othello greets Lodovico, the wedding of poetry and gutter speech is consummated:

You are welcome, sir, to Cyprus.—Goats and monkeys!

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has always distinguished itself with a purity of diction. Shakespeare’s language is spoken clearly and crisply, and is joined to gesture and expression. This is quite simply a matter of trusting the language. Any of us who have taught Shakespeare in the classroom have encountered students who believe that they don’t understand Shakespeare because of the language. The best refutation of this—the best proof to them that they do already understand Shakespeare—lies in the experience of the theater. Carefully spoken, as meaningful human speech, wedded to expression, the language becomes no less intelligible as the life around us.

This might sound like cant or bardolatry. But the demonstrable proof lay in the audience around me at CST’s Othello. As Roderigo, Iago and Brabantio poured out their swill (“His Moorship…the thicklips…an old black ram…a Barbary horse…the beast with two backs…lascivious Moor…the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou…”) I could feel the per­son next to me—a senior figure in Chicago wealth management—flinch with each racist slur. As Iago worked Othello with each tightening of the screw, the rise of tension in the audience was palpable. People listened even more than they watched, with acute understanding to the words. Such emotionally exact, insanely, rhetorically, over-the-top words as

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.

Or,

Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

After much silence, speech is a sharpened blade.


Clark Hulse is a professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.