Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

American Shakespeare Center

I've been going to the Blackfriars--the world's only recreation of Shakespeare's indoor theater--since this past May, when I saw Henry V, a play about a cynical man who, conniving with a cynical clergy, undertakes to conquer France, which he succeeds in doing. Some business schools, with no sense of irony, assign Henry V to their students as a primer on leadership. Well, since facts don't matter and people will stupidly follow along wherever Henry tells them to go, I guess that makes some sense. But the play might better be used to teach the futility of succession planning, since Henry dies at 36 and leaves behind a nine-month old Henry VI and a widow (Katherine of Valois) who secretly takes up with Owen Tudor, thereby giving rise to the Tudors. 

The ASC approaches Shakespeare through the essential performance practices of Shakespeare's theater. I say "essential," since the ASC does not undertake to recreate all the practices. Boys, for example, do not play the women's parts. I suspect the ASC drops the boys because of the rather high levels of anxiety their presence might engender.

The ASC relies on two companies of players: a touring company, which I saw do Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and  he Two Gentlemen of Verona and a resident company that I saw do Twelfth Night more times than I can remember, as well as King Lear and Henry VI, part 2. 

Much as I admired Henry V, I was disappointed by Romeo and Juliet--presented as one long bawdy joke. It certainly is wonderfully bawdy, especially--say--in Mercutio's placing of time's hands on the prick of noon as a means of telling time. And I was unpleasantly surprised by the portrayal of Thurio in Two Gentlemen as flamboyantly effeminate--it would be an insult to say "gay," although that is probably what for many in an audience the portrayal signified. Discussions of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio in Twelfth Night, and the speaker in Shakespeare's Sonnets demonstrate the anxiety aroused by possible homoerotic presence. It was odd, however, to see such stereotypical behavior trotted forth as was done in The Two Gentlemen.  The resident company, which was not responsible for Two Gentlemen, will return after the Holidays with The Merchant of Venice. I am confident that company will do a fine job with a character whom Shakespeare's audience might have been seen as a stock comic character, although Shakespeare's play makes of Shylock considerably more.

The resident company's Shakespeare has been consistently satisfying, even if--as must be the case--one is seeing conceptions of characters that do not necessarily match one's own idea of what the characters will be. More than the pleasure of seeing Shakespeare week-after-week, the ASC reinforces the absolute necessity of connecting the words on the page and the performance of those words. In other words, simply reading Shakespeare's text is rather as though one looked at the score of The Goldberg Variations without hearing them played by an Andras Schiff, an Angela Hewitt, or a Murray Perahia. Watching the players at Blackfriars makes it difficult not to quote Hamlet's advice to the players; instead, however, I will quote Olivia: watching the players bring the words to life is "most wonderful." 

Copyright Oliver H. Evans 2016