Thursday, September 29, 2016

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

My second child is the one I call the Macabre Daughter. She has always been fascinated with death and “gross” things. She asked me - at age three I believe - if animals liked being eaten. Her favorite animal was a mouse - starting at under a year old. Today, she has a large collection of stuffed Kangaroo Rats (and has been carefully checking at night wherever we camp to see the live ones.) She recently made a Dracula costume for one of them. She likes getting shots, and has an incredible tolerance for pain. So it was no surprise when we started seeing live theater with the kids that she took an immediate liking to the tragedies. After all, everyone dies. So it’s all good, right?

Of the four plays we saw at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the only tragedy was Julius Caesar. She really, really wanted to see King Lear last year (she is named Cordelia…) but we couldn’t make it work, alas.

It was nice to catch a more serious play here, I must say. Julius Caesar can be a challenging play to produce, not least because Shakespeare assumes a certain familiarity with Plutarch and with Roman history and politics in general. In particular, the role of Caesar seems a bit sparse, and one must fill in the gaps to understand exactly what motivates Brutus.

The beauty of this particular production, then, was in the way that Julius Caesar was portrayed. Actor Paul Michael Sandberg is tall and imposing, with a shaved head, deep and powerful voice, and the ability to exude lofty arrogance in spades. He has the command of his rank, and a clear ability to marshall men to him. When he walked on stage, I could feel that certain vibe - it’s hard to explain it. He was both electric and yet dangerous. 

Paul Michael Sandburg (center) as Julius Caesar

Thus, it was much easier to understand the dilemma of Brutus, who once had a love for Caesar the man, but is struggling with the force of power he is becoming. And Cassius, as he should be, was ambiguously motivated. How much do his personal reasons influence his well-articulated political reasons for wanting Caesar dead? He makes for a perfect foil for the equally morally ambivalent Antony. (More about him later.) This all made the famous lines by Caesar so powerful in the context of this production:

CAESAR: Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much.
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony. He hears no music.
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.

Another one of Paul Michael Sandberg. Because.

Caesar mocks the very idea of fear, and yet he is perceptive enough to sense the danger. Cassius is played by Rex Young, who does indeed seem smarmy enough and yet earnest. In some other productions I have seen, Cassius was too crafty, and it was hard to believe a truly conflicted Brutus would associate with him. But in this case, Cassius was compelling. I might have joined the conspiracy myself.

The sad part of this play is that, of historical necessity, Caesar is killed before the intermission. It really is sad to see him go. Even in this version, where Caesar is arrogant to the point of unpleasantness, it still is a shame that he has to die. What could have been…

And this is where a truly excellent Brutus is necessary. While Caesar gets the name of the play, if we are honest, it might better have been named “The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus.” In order for the play to work, Brutus must both be the hero of the play, and have a genuine moral conflict which overwhelms him. The circumstances he faces must, in order to make a proper tragedy, be too great for any man to navigate successfully. Jeffrey Cummings did a fine job in the role.

But the credit for the best performance has to go to Antony. My wife has attended the Shakespeare Festival with a friend for three years running. During that time, they have performed the histories in order - she joined the fun with Henry IV Part 1. They have kept the same actor for each character throughout, which means three years of Sam Ashdown as prince Hal, and later Henry V. Amanda has been telling me how good this guy was since she first saw him.

He plays Antony in this play.

Holy smokes. As my wife put it, he seems almost too big for the stage. And that is in a figurative sense. He’s actually a pretty small guy, about my size. But man does he fill that stage. He first appears with Caesar, who cuts a big enough space, but by the end of Act III Scene 1, he owns the play.

ANTONY: O! pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers;  
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood;
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips,
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue,
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,     
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds:
And C├Žsar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,   
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

With that one line, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,” which is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful, I was moved, I will admit. Full shivers down the spine, and a visceral reaction. Dang, what a great moment.

And that’s before one gets to Antony’s speech. (Did anyone else have to memorize this for High School? Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I read then, and we memorized the speech.) Antony owned this moment. Not just with his “audience,” but with the real life audience. I have seen this play before live, but this different.

The second half of the play is, I’m afraid, a bit of a slow letdown. The hazards of using history as a source. It’s not Shakespeare’s strongest finish, to say the least. But there are some good moments. In this particular production, which is “set” in modernish (probably Cold War Era) costume, Strato, the soldier who assists Brutus in his final suicide, is played by the same actor as Caesar. But you don’t know this until he takes off his flak helmet and mask. And then Brutus, momentarily startled, says his final lines:

Caesar, now be still.
I killed not thee with half so good a will.

Nicely played, I would say.

Perhaps the most relevant theme of Julius Caesar, though, is that of the nature of crowds. Within the few hours of the play, the public has gone from wishing Caesar crowned as one of the gods to anger at his “ambition” and full support for Brutus to wild anger willing to sacrifice an innocent poet for having the wrong name. Then as now, the cult of personality and the forces of hate and anger are the true weapons of mass destruction. Within a few years, the old Republic of Rome, many of its most noble and gifted men, and the ideals of liberty were destroyed, and in their place rose one of the bloodiest and ruthless police states the world has ever known. The Dogs of War indeed.

I also want to mention a few things about the staging and production. The Utah Shakespeare Festival has the benefit of fairly high budgets, which means that sets, props, and costumes are all high quality. In this case, there is a larger-than-life statue of Pompey (which looks strikingly similar to Caesar...) which dominates one side of the stage.

Well, perhaps I need to describe the stage too. This was held in one of the new indoor theaters, the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, a smaller venue. It has two ranks of bleachers, with the stage in the middle. Kind of like a high school gym set up for Basketball. This means that there are no curtains, and only the two ends (which are small) fixed. The larger sides each have the audience there, and actors must essentially act so as to be seen and heard by people 180 degrees apart. This works pretty well, but must certainly require carefully planned choreography and outstanding awareness by the actors.

So, back to the statue. It dominated the one fixed wall, and was creepy in the “communist dictator statue” kind of way. The other wall had a two-story scaffolding erected - as if the site were a work in progress. There was little, therefore, in the way of a back stage, and there was nowhere to hide. Thus, scene changes needed carefully timed light and sound work in addition to perfect timing on entrances by the actors.

Another challenge in the small space was the quick cleanup needed for the copious stage blood that was shed. The macabre daughter loved all this, although my 8-year-old son had to reassure himself it was fake. (This is the one play my 5-year-old daughter did not attend.) The moment when the conspirators bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood was appropriately creepy.

On the other hand, the intimate venue (about 200 seats maximum) means the play is seen up close. Facial expressions translate beautifully, and soft voices can be heard without difficulty. (These are professional productions, so there is never any difficulty hearing the actors, but they can go to a lower level of whisper in this venue.)

This was an excellent production all around, with easily the best-developed Caesar I have seen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Mechanical Horse: How The Bicycle Reshaped American Life by Margaret Guroff

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This year, the new books rack at the local library has been a fertile source of interesting books that I might not otherwise have thought of reading. The two other books I found this way, Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas, and The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez were heavier reads than this. They were also both excellent, and I highly recommend both of them. 

The Mechanical Horse: How The Bicycle Reshaped American Life is a lighter read, but still a rather interesting one. For some reason, the bicycle seems like an old fashioned device, one from the days of ox carts and chariots. But in reality, it has only been around for a little over 150 years, and was only affordable to the average person for less time than that. It is a modern invention, and has more in common with motor vehicles and aircraft than with the transportation of the past, as the author points out.

This book is not an exhaustive history of the bicycle, nor does it focus on the development of its subject. Instead, it looks at the social impact and influence of the bicycle on society and on the future. Furthermore, it focuses on the bicycle in the United States, giving the history in Europe and the present worldwide just a few mentions.

The history begins, of course, with the first gadget that looked like a bike: the one you had to push with your feet, rather than pedal. It never caught on, for reasons that seem obvious now. Instead, it was the “velocipede” that would get a foothold into the public consciousness. The pedals at first were attached to the front wheel. As the need for speed increased, the front wheels became ever larger, topping out at the maximum a human could manage: twice the rider’s inseam.

But enough about the history. You can read the book yourself for more and better.

I did want to focus on a few of the most interesting social implications of the bicycle. In this book, the author describes how the need for suitable riding surfaces led to the paving of roads. In turn, this paving made the use of automobiles feasible in the following decades. Sometimes, we forget that, unlike Europe, the United States of the mid-to-late 1800s had a bad to non-existent road system outside the cities. There was a reason why elections were held nearly six months before the new president and congress would be sworn in: it literally could take that long to travel to Washington DC.

The bicycle also paved the way (in a more figurative sense) for the invention of the automobile itself. Henry Ford (along with a number of other manufacturers and inventors) got his start making bicycles. And everyone knows of the Wright Brothers, who used their bicycle shop and expertise to build and fly the first airplane. Since bicycle manufacture combined a high level of technical expertise with a need to keep costs down and processes simple, it is natural that the bicycle engineer and technician would have a head start in these new industries.

I also found a particular chapter in this book to be interesting. The author proposes that the bicycle was a key factor in a major societal change in the United States: the shift to a consumer society and possessions as status symbols. That the United States is foremost among nations in our accumulation of stuff and our never-ending need for more useless crap is pretty hard to dispute. The author notes that prior to consumer culture, the wealthy were as likely to show off by parading their idleness and self-indulgence. (One can in some ways see this returning, in the movement to use wealth to buy “experiences” rather than “stuff.” Probably nothing new under the sun…) With the bicycle, though, having the latest and greatest toy became the popular way to show off.

Interestingly, the popularity of the bicycle in the United States, where it is rarely practical as a primary means of transportation (unlike in, say, China), has depended largely on its association with status. During the first boom, only rich men could afford them. So, clubs were formed (and excluded women, non-whites, and youths as unworthy) where the wealthy could race and show off their toys. Once bicycles became affordable to the masses, the bloom faded, and sales fell. Later, bicycles would become a status symbol for children: every kid had to have a bicycle. And then the fad passed. (Of course, “less popular” now means more people own a bike than they did during the first “fad,” but these are relative measures.) Now, in our present time, one can see another boom - this time in mountain bikes of great cost and sophistication. Again, a status symbol plaything of wealthy men. (And a few women too this time around.)

It was interesting to read some of the statements made by the men of leisure in that first boom. Only true amateurs were allowed to race - nobody who could use an extra buck could do so. Some of the statements (and the notorious manners) of the riders make the bicycle seem like an early version of the sports car or oversized SUV, used as much to extend the middle finger to others as for any practical purpose.

My wife already knew this, but I was not aware of just how much the bicycle was a catalyst in the early Feminist movement. The Victorian Era was one of ridiculous fashions for women, ones seemingly (and probably in fact) calculated to weigh women down, sap their strength, ruin their health, and make activity burdensome at best.

The bicycle threw a wrench (or a wheel, perhaps) into this. At first, only men rode, while women were relegated to large tricycles. But women wanted the freedom and thrill of speed and motion too. Hence, bloomers and other outfits were fashioned. By the 1880s, women were making scandalous news for riding in public wearing pants. The pearl clutching brigade had their panties all in a wad over this, sure the world was going to hell.

Regular readers of my blog will know that this is a bit of a sore point for me, because of me and my wife’s history. I want to quote a few things from the book because of how they illustrate exactly why the body policing of females is damaging.

The temperance activist Frances Willard recalled in her memoirs that:

“I ‘ran wild’ until my sixteenth birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels. I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’”

I showed this to my wife, who confirmed that this was very much how she felt during puberty, when she went from shorts and t-shirts to long dresses and “Modesty Culture.”

This is the very reason why I am so determined that my daughters will never be made to feel ashamed of their bodies. Girls, just like boys, should be able to feel the joy of movement, of exercise, of flying around on wheels, of being wonderfully and gloriously human. (Hey, I’m 40 and nobody’s idea of svelte, but I still feel joy while running and hiking and, well, moving freely.) Watching my own kids, I do not see any difference between male and female in this respect. It is only when you tell girls that they should not be active, vigorous, and free that they change. 

 Me and my second daughter, after racing up a set of switchbacks at Bryce Canyon National Park. (She won.)

By the way, the bicycle’s impact on female liberation wasn’t just in the area of clothing. It also granted them freedom to move around without male assistance or accompaniment. Much hay has been made of Saudi Arabia and its ban on female driving. Why does the law exist? To be sure that women do not venture out from the supervision of men. Thus it was in the early days of the bicycle too.

A single woman’s reputation could be ruined by being seen in public with a man. In public. In a public place. But the bicycle, by making it possible to travel miles at a time, helped change this perception. As two female journalists put it:

“The world is a new and another sphere under the bicyclist’s observation. Here is a process of locomotion that is absolutely at her command.”

“If a woman’s sphere begins to feel too small, the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road.”

No less a luminary than Susan B. Anthony, herself too old to feel able to ride, said about the bicycle:

“I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.”

One further revolution was instigated by the bicycle: the fitness revolution. It is rather amusing in a dark way just how much classism has played in popular belief, and this is one example. Not too long ago, only commoners engaged in physical activity. Work was for those who had to, leisure was for those who could afford to avoid work. And thus arose the idea that one had only so much exertion available in one’s lifetime, and that wasting energy by vigorous activity was bound to shorten one’s life. (This turns out to be true for honeybees, but not for mammals…) So, when the bicycle appeared, there were dire warnings that horrible things awaited those who rode.

Naturally, this worry was primarily directed at women, a sex who was “born tired,” and who must not exert themselves physically (or mentally, for that matter) as they needed to keep their strength up for childbirth.

“The exertion necessary to riding with productive of an excitation of nervous and physical energy that is anything but beneficial,” Charlotte Smith warned. “If a halt is not called soon, 75 per cent of the cyclists will be an army of invalids within the next ten years.”

The problem was, of course, that time proved the naysayers wrong. It turned out that physical activity promoted health, strengthened the body, and lifted the spirits. Even pregnant women are now encouraged to stay active. (My wife’s doctor cleared her to run a 10k at 5 months pregnant - and there were no ill effects.) Within a few decades, the opinion had changed, and doctors were recommending exercise as cures for a variety of illnesses. Not that this was universal. Then, as now, there was the competition between those espousing exercise, and those offering quack cures for the supposed diseases caused by it.

I have to quote one more line here, from the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, on the many cases of injury from bicycle crashes involving excessive speed. (In those halcyon days before helmets…)

“It might seem almost impossible to fracture a skull thick enough to permit indulgence in such practices, but the bicycle fool at full speed has been able to accomplish it.”

Despite the noise on both sides, fitness would win the day. As I watch my own kids - particularly my daughters - I see the benefits of these revolutions. My children are free to run (we are members of the local track club) and hike, and bike, and climb, free from any worry that they will damage their bodies by exercise. My children take for granted the fact that they will increasingly be able to go where they want without supervision as they grow into adulthood. All of them, not just the boys, can and do wear clothing that permits movement and allows cooling airflow as they sweat.

The bicycle had a significant role in these revolutions. This book tells those stories, and does so in an entertaining and enlightening manner.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Cocoanuts by George S. Kaufman, Irving Berlin, and The Marx Brothers

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to take on a play that is so associated with particular actors that it is essentially inseparable from them. Taking on the iconic Marx Brothers would seem to be all risk with a low upside.

Except that the Utah Shakespeare Festival has no end of chutzpah and the chops to pull it off.

The Cocoanuts featured all four of the Marx Brothers in lead roles - even the rarely seen Zeppo as the protagonist and straight man Robert Jamison. In addition, there is a goofy (of course) story by George S. Kaufman (see my review of You Can’t Take It With You which we saw earlier this year), and songs by Irving Berlin.

So, how to pull this off? Well, you need your actors to have the skills to imitate the Marx Brothers without it looking like a cheap rip-off. And boy, did they pull it off. 

Jim Poulos, John Plumpis, and Tasso Feldman
(Chico, Groucho, and Harpo)

The plot isn’t that important, but here it is: Groucho is Mr. Hammer, the owner of a failing seedy hotel in Miami during the 1920s land boom (which was followed by a crash, of course). His clerk, Jamison (Zeppo) is in love with Polly, the daughter of the wealthy Mrs. Potter. The Potter fortune is coveted by the slimey Harvey Yates, a broke scion of a high society family, and his co-conspirator Penelope. The plan is for Harvey to marry Polly, but she hates him. A conspiracy is hatched to steal Mrs. Potter’s valuable diamond necklace, and have Harvey discover it and win the family’s heart.

Of course, things go wrong. To begin with, Chico and Harpo, a couple of small time con artists, show up at the hotel. Hilarity and chaos follow, of course.

It is no use whatsoever to try to recount all of the many gags, terrible puns, and slapstick situations that fill this play from top to bottom. In addition, a number of the jokes were improvised, and thus different from night to night. My wife saw this play early in the run back in July, and then saw it again with us in September, and she said there were a number of lines which differed, and plenty of new jokes. (In some cases, these were aimed at the Utah luminaries attending, so they were intentionally specific to the performance.)

One in particular that stood out to me occurred when Groucho managed to work the Quadratic Formula into a joke. There were some scattered laughs, at which point Groucho broke the fourth wall and said, “I see there are some math majors in the audience…” And a few of us who paid attention in High School too, I guess.

I do have to tip my hat to John Plumpis, who played Groucho. It was an outstanding performance. On the one hand, you knew it wasn’t the real Groucho, but the voice and the mannerisms were so darn close, it was hard to tell. He also matched the comedic timing so well. In my experience, one of the biggest differences between an amateur play and a truly professional one is just how well the actors can gauge exactly how long to pause after a funny line. It is easy to jump in with the next too early, or look awkward in the interim. The best can make it flow as naturally as possible. 

Also amazing was Tasso Feldman as Harpo. I saw Tasso last year playing Charlie in Charlie’s Aunt. In that role, he was a bit overshadowed by Michael Doherty, who played “Babbs” and the faux-aunt. In The Cocoanuts, Feldman is allowed to showcase his talent more freely, and he very nearly stole the show. It was freaky just how well he mimicked all of Harpo’s mannerisms, facial expressions, and more. For a part that does not in fact have any spoken lines, he truly acted the part. If you ever want to understand the difference between speaking and acting, this is a good example. I was blown away.

My kids were introduced to the Marx Brothers at a young age, beginning with A Night At The Opera. I am, after all, trying to raise them right. Of all the plays we planned to see, I think this was the one that four out of the five kids were most looking forward to seeing. (The macabre daughter was most thrilled to see Julius Caesar, because of the higher body count.) In any case, they enjoyed the jokes very much indeed - and I think every year they get more of the bad puns.

I should also mention the music. This is a musical, after all. Irving Berlin is always a pleasure, regardless of the topic. In this case, there were references to the Anvil Chorus and Carmen - jokes that were not lost on this classical musician.

But the very best part was this: not only was the music live and not canned, the musicians were on stage! Yes, there was a small “orchestra,” consisting of five musicians. Piano, drums, upright bass, a guy playing guitar, ukulele, banjo, and typewriter as needed, and a violinist. (Bonus points for that!) They were at the center rear of the stage, and were essentially the hotel’s house band. So you could watch them do their thing. The coolness level for that idea is off the charts. 

 Because the Orchestra always needs more credit in stage productions. Well done, fellow musicians!

Anyway, we had a great time, and I must commend the Utah Shakespeare Festival for stretching beyond the usual repertoire to find gems such as The Cocoanuts and Charlie’s Aunt. Shakespeare is of course at the heart of what they do, but their commitment to variety shows, and the “other stuff” is so very fun.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Lord and Lady Bunny: Almost Royalty by Polly Horvath

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

It was last year that the kids introduced me to Polly Horvath and the bizarre world of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny. Since then, we have listened to a few different books, some delightful, and one not so much.  They have been lobbying me to get the second book in the series, so we did so for our Utah adventure.

The world the Bunnies inhabit is one in which humans and animals rarely interact, but the animals are sentient and can use modern technology. It doesn’t make total sense, but that is part of the point. 

In this sequel, young Madeleine is back, along with her clueless hippie parents, Flo and Mildred (not their real names, which are so boring I can’t recall them.) Madeleine wants nothing more than to start a college fund (which her new upper-middle-class friend insists is necessary), but has little hope of doing so with help from her perpetually broke and incompetent parents. But then, a distant relative in England dies, leaving them a candy shop in a small town, as long as they are willing to leave immediately to run it.

At the same time, Mrs. Bunny is dissatisfied with her life, and wants adventure. Well, more specifically, she wants to be queen for reasons that neither she nor the long-suffering Mr. Bunny can quite figure out. So, it’s off to England. Can Flo and Mildred hold it together long enough to make a profit, despite their aversion to filthy lucre? Can Mrs. Bunny attain her dream of being made royalty? Or will the insufferable Mrs. Treaclebunny and her aristocratic hedgehog relative be able to gloat at their failures? And maybe Mr. Bunny really should just run off and play King Lear in a travelling Shakespeare production. All he needs is one of those masculine carrying pouch things.

This book is a bit different from the previous one in that it doesn’t involve a mystery - and nobody is kidnapped by foxes. There are also too few marmots, unfortunately. On the other hand, it is hard to tire of Flo’s perpetual, “Woah, that’s heavy, man!” and the witty jokes that older kids and grownups can find scattered throughout are well done. One recurring gag that I liked was the fact that in England, everyone blames the faux pas of the human and rabbit characters on them being “Americans.” Except that they are Canadian. One wonders if the Canadian author has had to explain the difference a few thousand too many times.

Look for some celebrity appearances too. The queen, of course, and Prince Charles, who appeared in the last book too. But also J. K. Rowling, and Horvath herself as the “translator” of the Mr. and Mrs. Bunny books.

As in the previous book, Horvath credits “Mrs. Bunny” as the author, and herself as the translator. In the audiobook version, Mrs. Bunny is the ostensible narrator as well, with some interesting vocal quirks. Throw in the disputes between Mr. and Mrs. Bunny as to who contributed what to the book, and there is a certain amount of uncertainty as to exactly how the two of them managed to put a story together in the first place.

As usual, the book is rather on the bizarre side, and doesn’t really resemble any recognizable genre. Horvath is at her best when she remains on the humorous rather than the serious side.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

For the last three years, my wife has attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City with a friend. (Since the festival lasts all summer and part of the fall, she times it during one of the camping trips the kids and I take.) This year, however, she also decided that it would be nice to plan a trip with the kids and me so that we could see some of the fall plays together. We timed it to see the last of the summer plays and the openings of the fall plays. That way we could see Much Ado About Nothing together.

Early in our marriage, we saw this play together at the local community college, and found that we were the only people under the age of 60 who laughed at the naughty jokes. Apparently, the art of the Elizabethan double entendre doesn’t come easy to the young folks. Or something like that. Anyway, we enjoyed it, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of seeing a truly professional company perform this, one of my favorite plays. I was not disappointed. And the kids loved it, even my youngest. (Special points to the staff for letting us slip her in even though she is technically below the age limit.)

The very title is a pun. In Shakespeare’s day, “Nothing” and “Noting” were pronounced the same way, and throughout, there is great importance to the matter of noting what is going on. It is the failure to take note which leads to disaster, and the noticing of that which was there all along that leads to happiness. “Nothing” is actually a triple entendre as well: in Shakespeare’s time, it was also used as slang for a woman’s nether regions. As in they form an “O” and there is nothing else between the legs. Thus, throughout the play, there will be puns on all three meanings. Nothing, taking note, and sex. Also note that it is “Benedick,” not “Benedict.” He isn’t a benevolent sort, he’s, um, been a dick in the past. Isn’t Shakespeare fun?

Much Ado About Nothing has two main plots, one comic, and one serious. On the serious side, Claudio falls in love with the beautiful young woman, Hero, but disgraces her at the altar after the villainous Don John and his henchman Borachio trick him into believing Hero has been unfaithful.

The comic plot involves two of Shakespeare’s best characters, Beatrice and Benedick. He is a worldly wise old soldier, determined never to be caught in the coils of matrimony. He is openly disdainful of the trickery and falseness of women. Beatrice is the old maid equally determined never to become the property of a man, convinced that no male is worth surrendering her freedom and self.

And, of course, Beatrice and Benedick are old frenemies, dating back to their youth. As soon as Benedick comes with Don Pedro’s troop to stay with Leonato, Beatrice’s uncle, the two are caught up in a war of words, each seeing who can come out on top in the sparring match. Leonato has to explain to those unfamiliar with the two that they actually don’t hate each other. This is just what they do.

Don Pedro and Claudio decide to prank Benedick by arranging for him to overhear their conversation in which they assert that Beatrice is secretly in love with him, but is afraid to say so.

At the same time, Hero and her maid Ursula arrange the same thing for Beatrice. Unsurprisingly, they both fall for the trick. Actually, it is no real secret that they are meant for each other anyway, and the “trick” serves more to reveal the truth about their feelings than to create them.

After Hero is disgraced, Leonato is convinced by the priest to fake Hero’s death, as he believes there is some treachery going on. Since this is a comedy, there is a successful resolution, and happiness abounds to all except the evil Don John.

The treachery is revealed - accidentally almost - through and despite the hilarious bungling of the constable, Dogberry, and his equally moronic town watch. This part was particularly fun for my younger son (age 8) who laughed uproariously throughout the whole scene.

Dogberry is an early example of the Malaprop - a person who uses the wrong word. Richard Sheridan would create the best known version, Mrs. Malaprop, in The Rivals, but Shakespeare was there first.

After Conrade (another of Don John’s minions) calls him an ass, he makes sure it is written down, and later reminds Leonato of this:

[A]nd, masters, do not forget to specify, when time
and place shall serve, that I am an ass.

Yes, good times all around.

While in this case the humor is in the words, the real strength of this particular production was in the wordless acting. Much of the humor took place between lines. Benedick (Ben Livingston) was marvelous, hilarious to watch at all times. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He would have killed this part even without saying a word. The others too - Claudio, Don Pedro, Beatrice, and others - did a fantastic job at this as well. The choreography was well thought out, adding greatly to the effect.

Another facet of the production that I really appreciated was the choice in casting for Beatrice and Benedick. Both of them were (relatively) old, and neither was what one would call a traditional romantic lead. Benedick was grey, slight, and not terribly tall compared to the other soldiers. Beatrice was tallish (for a woman), with a deep and powerful voice. One suspected she could break him in half if she tried. At least in the figurative sense. And the two had great chemistry. 

Ben Livingston and Kim Martin-Cotten in the lead roles.
Publicity photo.  
Much Ado was notable in its time for its skewering of gender roles. There are many lines alluding to the need for female purity. In the case of Hero, these are played pretty straight. It’s horrifying how all the men are quick to assume she is playing the field, but it fits with the belief held throughout most of history in the West that women had uncontrollable libidos and would cheat in a heartbeat if they weren’t kept under tight control.

The other plot, however, turns this on its head, with the jester Balthazar asserting that it is actually men who play around, and women are left with the heartache.

Beatrice is hardly a feminine character, in the traditional sense. She is closer in spirit to Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, but never “reforms” in the sense that Kate does. One is left to believe that Beatrice and Benedick will continue engage in their “merry war,” and that the sparks will be verbal as well as romantic throughout their marriage. Even as they profess their love for each other, they can’t help but slip some barbs into the banter.

It’s also interesting that Hero, playing the traditionally feminine role, suffers immensely, while Beatrice remains mistress of her own fate.

Benedick gets what might be the most romantic line in all of Shakespeare. My lovely wife brought me back a shirt from the festival with this line on it, and I must say, I like it very much. It is a bit naughty, however.

I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.


This play calls for some music - and some history.

Hector Berlioz was perhaps one of the most memorable figures in classical music, with grand visions involving thousands of musicians, an innovative and imaginative - if not always the most polished - style, and a personality which was far from stable.

A touring Shakespeare company came to Paris, and he fell madly (literally) in love with Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress who played Ophelia and Juliet in their respective plays. He became obsessed with her, following her around and bombarding her hotel with letters. In our age, he would have been hit with a restraining order. She rebuffed him until years later, when she realized he had written a whole symphony about her. They eventually married, which was as disastrous as one might expect, and they separated after having a child together.

The legacy of Smithson, though, lives on in three works. Berlioz would write a choral work based on Romeo and Juliet, an opera entitled Beatrice and Benedict, based on Much Ado, and the Symphonie Fantastique.

Ah, the Symphonie Fantastique, which eventually won Smithson’s heart. What a bizarre work it is. Based on an opium dream that Berlioz had, it contains a theme that represents Harriet, as the artist follows her with an obsessive gaze. They meet at a ball, in the countryside, and he pursues. But things take a dark turn. He murders her in his obsession, and is sent to the guillotine for his crime. In hell, he meets her at a witches sabbath, where she presides. It’s trippy stuff, and the music is rather descriptive. (Who doesn’t love the moment when his severed head plops softly into the basket?)

The fact that this creepy tale told in music was attractive to her (in the romantic, rather than musical sense) indicates she may have been as crazy as Berlioz himself.

Here is the overture to Beatrice and Benedict, with the banter between the two portrayed in Berlioz’s typical sparkling fashion.

And here is the fourth movement of Symphonie Fantastique, the March to the Scaffold. The march builds as the artist is marched to the guillotine. The crowd quiets toward the end, and he briefly recalls the melody of the beloved, before the stroke of the axe falls, the head drops into the basket, and the bloodthirsty crowd roars its approval. Brilliant stuff.