Thursday, March 20, 2014

Memorable Shakespeare

A comic’s picture appears every week in the Budgeteer.  He has a silly hat and a silly expression.  How does such a comic turn into evil incarnate?  Brian Matuszak did it brilliantly in the Wise Fool Shakespeare production of Macbeth.

Matuszak portrayed Macbeth as moving from a loyal officer of the king to a wavering assassin to an indiscriminate killer, always torn between ambition and distrust of all who might stand in his way.  Given that the costumes were of 1930s Chicago, I found it easy to compare Matuszak’s Macbeth to an ambitious but incompetent CEO.  Rather than look at his own mismanagement he fires anyone who proposes contrary suggestions.

I was almost ready to walk out after the first act because the manic actions of Matuszak as Macbeth were almost unbearable.  Fortunately, I knew the outcome and stayed to be mesmerized by the slow but inevitable approach of Macbeth’s doom.  Matuszak brilliantly showed Macbeth’s rising fears with much pacing, quavering hands, and doubting “inner” voices.

I have been mesmerized by Shakespeare’s plays since at least the ninth grade in the Cleveland Public Schools.  I think we read “As You Like It” in the ninth grade.  I know we read “Julius Caesar” in the tenth grade and both “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” in the twelfth grade.  I had the same English teacher, Miss Palmer, for the last three plays.

I hated the memorization parts but I liked the reading approach.  We first read an act a day as homework and then reread the play a few scenes at a time.  We would also read passages aloud in class.

I’ll never forget the Hi BA’er (High School Born Again’er) who refused to read Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!”  I don’t know why it didn’t bother him to read the words of a murderer but it did to read that one curse word!  Miss Palmer had to recite those words so he would continue.

About fifty years ago I ordered the Yale University collection of Shakespeare from the Book of the Month Club.  When I received it, I discovered that the cover of the Sonnets was upside down.  Or was the text upside down?  I sent that book back with a sonnet.  I got a “proper” copy back but no acknowledgment of my writing “skill” and I didn’t keep a copy of my sonnet.

I have yet to read all the plays, but every so often I pick out one from the long faded row and read one I haven’t read before or reread one.

Where has the space gone?  I got so carried away with the above that I’ve used up half my space already.  I’ll have to dash through some of my other Shakespeare experiences.

I’m sure I’ve seen several stage productions of Shakespeare’s plays, but a few stand out.  We saw “The Tempest” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and more.  We had season tickets and the Guthrie generally did one Shakespeare play every season.

One of the most interesting settings was “Much Ado about Nothing” on the shore of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.  The actors had to contend with the jets flying overhead.

The movie versions have stuck better in my memory.

One of the first is Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth”, which was financed by Playboy.  I’ll let you look for more of the details in Wikipedia.  Besides the nudity and violence, the scene that I remember best is Macbeth placing his feet in the deep-set footprints in a coronation stone.

I remember three movie versions of “Hamlet”, Laurence Olivier, 1948, Mel Gibson, 1990, and Kenneth Branagh, 1996.  The difference that struck me was that Olivier was declaiming on stage and Gibson and Branagh were acting in elaborate movie sets.  (Matuszak was acting on a very plain stage.)

Franco Zefferelli directed a very good version of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1968.

I remember seeing a black and white version of “Merchant of Venice”, but I don’t remember when or by whom.  While looking up “Merchant of Venice”, I did find a Wikipedia entry for Lois Weber, an actress, screenwriter, producer, and director.  Reading that entry was a fascinating diversion.

When the Plaza Mr. Movies closed, I bought a copy of Kenneth Branagh’s “As You Like It”.  Bryce Dallas Howard plays a very perky and likable Rosalind.  Her delivery of “I will marry no woman” has really stuck in my mind.  I should watch it again one of these years.

How many operas have been based on Shakespeare?  “Othello”, “Macbeth”, “Falstaff”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Merry Wives of Windsor”, “Antony and Cleopatra”, and on and on.  They have been in English, Italian, French, Russian, German, and probably more.

Then there are the spinoffs on stage and film.

“Kiss me, Kate” is a play within a play; the actors playing out the story of “The Taming of the Shrew” on stage and in “real” life.

Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”.  At least in this version “Juliet” walked off after the death of “Romeo” rather than kill herself.

Akira Kurusawa’s “Ran” is a retelling of “King Lear” in a Japanese setting.  It is a good telling of good intentions going very badly.

“All the world is a stage” and Shakespeare appears in all the world!

This was also printed in the Reader Weekly, 2014-03-20 at