All Shakespeare, All the Time

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midsummer_nights_dream1.jpgI’ve had so much Shakespeare this past few weeks, that I almost feel like Judi Dench (well, turning the 40th year milestone did that too).  There’s always something Shakespearean going on somewhere in this city’s energetic arts community, but to have both Anne Bogart and the SITI Company‘s experimental take on Macbeth which had already drawn raves in New York’s Under the Radar Festival of cutting-edge work, as well as British director Tim Supple’s vibrant, highly-acclaimed, polyglot version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in the Indian subcontinent, on stage at the same time, is some kind of special. I saw both last weekend, but unfortunately, both shows have already closed as of this writing. 

I probably admired Bogart’s Radio Macbeth, part of the Court Theater‘s regular subscription season, more than I actually liked it.  It was a fascinating exercise- what if you made Macbeth, that most theatrical of Shakespearean tragedies, which had lent itself effectively to a variety of milieus such as 16th century feudal Japan (Kurosawa’s brilliant film, Throne of Blood)and Stalinist Russia (the latest Broadway revival with Patrick Stewart), a World War II-era radio play?  As a radio play, the sound effects and the delivery of that beautiful Shakespearean language would then be front and center rather than taking a backseat to the visual stylizations of the piece that were often the hallmarks of productions of this play.  The concept was promising, but I’m not really sure that Bogart and her collaborators pulled it off effectively.  I thought there weren’t enough interesting, creative, attention-getting elements in the sound design- if the audience was expected to be drawn emotionally into Macbeth’s world primarily through what we’re hearing, then I would think Bogart and sound director Darron West would go all out, making us hear more hissing in that boiling cauldron, more thunderclapping in that violent storm, more ominous tolling in those bells, literally and figuratively.  Especially, since I didn’t think the play was effective in its other objective of drawing the audience in through the delivery of Shakespeare’s potent language.  The language was powerful enough, but other than the riveting Ellen Lauren who looked like a sassy Betty Grable but intoned like a machinating, nuanced Barbara Stanwyck-like femme fatale, the ensemble looked and sounded like, well.. like they’re performing in a radio play.

Tim Supple’s highly-creative A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the other hand, was one of the most joyous, most memorable, most jaw-dropping live performances I’ve seen in a long time, easily earning a slot in my top ten best theatrical productions list for 2008.  This Midsummer, now in its North American tour, appeared in Chicago as part of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s bold World’s Stage series, and had been buzzed about primarily because of it’s intriguing premise:  it was performed in eight languages – English and seven of the languages of the multi-cultural Indian subcontinent (Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Sanskrit, and Sinhala), without any supertitles.   But more than the language, the production’s whole sensibility was unabashedly, proudly, beautifully Indian, quite an achievement since Supple is British.  It was there in the stunning use of color fabrics so reflective of the culture (bright oranges and reds and limes), not just as costumes, but also as drapes falling from the ceiling (which doubled as props for some breathtaking acrobatics from the limber cast).  It was there in the evocative, enveloping musical score, using traditional Indian rhythms and musical instruments.  It was there in the inclusion of vigorous Indian martial arts moves in the choreography.  But most importantly, it was there in the exultant, enthralling, graceful yet muscular acting by an ensemble of Indian actors who comfortably switched back and forth between the languages (although interestingly, the female actors spoke in English the entire time, which I thought was a well-thought out directorial choice.  On one level, it’s Midsummer‘s female characters who have the clearest points of view in the play). The very long standing ovation that the audience gave at the end of the performance I attended was extremely well-deserved, since this Midsummer continued to prove the greatness of Shakespeare’s works:  they could bridge any cultural chasm and always resonate truthfully and magnificently.

The other notable Shakespearean production which is still running until December 21 at the Chopin Theater (1543 W. Division St.) is TUTA‘s The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.  As always, full disclosure time:  I am a TUTA Board Member and have always been one of its strongest advocates.  This particular production has drawn divisive reviews, but if you want to see Shakespeare done straight up, no twist, no gimmicks, no fuss, but with the language, and the emotions that they bring out, powerfully, proudly intact, then please go see it.  If you’re looking for Shakespeare done with other lenses, then you just missed Radio Mac and the Indian Midsummer.

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