June 29, 2010

New Horizons

You know what’s funny about higher education?  As soon as you get comfortable in one place, it’s time to figure out where to go next.  It’s like a gauge of how long you have been somewhere versus how long you should be somewhere.  If you know the good lunch spots then you can be nearly certain that your number is about to come up.  If you have the hours of the local starbucks (or better yet, independently-owned coffee shop) ingrained in your memory, if they know your drink the minute you walk in the door, if you’ve established a table at the local cafĂ© with free wifi, if you just figured out how to use the library system efficiently, if you know where to go for the shortest lines at the communal printer, you should also know that it’s time to be looking onward, upward, outward, and packing up the gypsy caravan to hit the next destination on your long journey to academic enlightenment.

And so, since I’ve finally found a grocery store that I like, I know that it’s time to figure out where my next port of call is.  PhD programs.  The thought is intensely frightening and exciting, gratifying and thrilling in that going-up-the-lift-hill-on-a-roller-coaster way.  And still, here I am, knee-deep in websites, e-mails and pamphlets.

I visited Columbia this past Friday to explore their PhD in Theatre Arts program.  I was shown around (and bought pinkberry!) by the wonderfully brilliant and exceptionally helpful Joseph, a current student in the program.  As we talked and meandered the campus (by the way, if you ever get a chance, go see the library… it looks like Hogwarts), a few thoughts were high in my mind.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been gearing up to be Dr. Rosvally my entire life.  If theatre wasn’t a source of academic inquiry, I would have either had to give up the goat and go to med school (sorry mom, not gonna happen) or give up the dream and just be Danielle (don’t worry, mom, not gonna happen either).  I’m also not implying that there’s no place for Theatre Scholarship, because as this blog and an entire field can attest to that is incorrect as well.  But to me, that place is in the theatre itself, not in a library.

Geologists live in caves, botanists forests, ichthyologist by the ocean.  Let the English majors have their libraries, we should be in the theatres getting our hands dirty.  The problem that I have with most Shakespeareans (either thespian or scholar) stems from this issue: theatre scholarship does require books, but it also requires a stage.  So when did the two become so segregated and why?

I don’t really have an answer that can be backed with charts and figures (but granted, I haven’t exactly researched it… yet).  What I do have is a lifetime of experience and from my experience, I can tell you a few things.

The first is that nobody likes to be told how to do their job, especially not people who having invested so much time and money into it that they have acquired a PhD, DFA, MFA, or some other fancy set of letters.  Merging scholarship and practicum must be done delicately, otherwise the thespians feel like the scholars think they know better (and they probably do think as much) and the scholars feel the same way about the thespians (again, likely the case).  Without a mutual appreciation for areas of expertise, hard feelings are to be had all around.  The best directors (and most interesting theatre people I know) are individuals who have devoted their lives to the craft.  There is a reason they are called “theatre people”, it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.  The same is true for scholars; here are individuals deeply invested in their work (as obscure or off-the-beaten-path as it may be).  Neither the scholars nor the actors know how to react to people from the other side of the fence.  Shock?  Awe?  Pity?  What is this strange art, so closely related to what I do, and yet so very different and how should it effect my own work?

I hate to make a sweeping generalization, but let’s face it: most actors aren’t exactly the bookish type.  They are practical people, people who are in their bodies, people who are required to face every scary inch of themselves publicly and make the discoveries held therein fresh on a nightly basis.  Actors are a resilient breed, unabashed by rejection.  They are survivors, warriors, and the good ones are some of the toughest people you will ever meet.  Actors are creatures of emotion.  They have to be.  If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to perform.

Scholars thrive off mental energy.  It takes a certain type of person to hammer at a research problem until it breaks, to argue on paper with people long dead, to face an ancient academy of peers with an idea that is entirely new and different.  Scholars are thinkers just as actors are feelers.  Logic, reason, discovery, curiosity, and a healthy dose of red pen go into the making of a scholar.

I’m not saying these two groups are diametrically opposite, but I am saying that they are fundamentally different.  I’m also not saying that an individual couldn’t fit both descriptions (if I was, it wouldn’t say much about my self-awareness now, would it?).  I am saying that to breech a gap like this takes courage, faith, understanding and trust.

I don’t think either world is ready to do this yet.  A level playing field hasn’t been established and neutral ground hasn’t yet been created.  To bring these two worlds together will require more than just a kid and a dream (mostly because that and $2.25 will get you on the subway).

I think I’m up for the challenge, but I’m going to need help.

Visiting the program at Columbia was inspiring.  It made me believe that I’m not the only one out there thinking about these things.  It showed me that sometimes you do need to re-visit old haunts in order to move forward (story for another day: how I didn’t go to Columbia for my undergrad).  Most importantly, it got me totally stoked for submitting PhD applications.

Thanks again, Joseph. 

Next stop on the PhD prospectus tour: Brown. 

June 23, 2010

famous last words

Yesterday, a member of my family passed away. It wasn’t unexpected, it wasn’t tragic (as far as death goes), it just was. People die. It is the ultimate punctuation to life. The period, question mark, or exclamation point to our time here upon this mortal coil.

I got the inevitable phone call (of course while I was driving, ain’t that the way things go?), I cried a little, and then I got to thinking. Here was a man who knew he was going to die. He was in the hospital and all signs were pointing at the hereafter. What does one say in those situations? There’s not much to be done, clearly, when you know you are running out of breathe and that your thought cannot sustain itself to another line. But there is still time for a few more words, a poignant tid-bit, a grand exit perhaps. At the very least one final jab at the world…

In Shakespeare, people die a lot. It’s the nature of the beast when you write Renaissance tragedy. Sometimes these deaths are expected, sometimes they are not. This passing within my life got me to thinking, what do the characters of the most eloquent man in the history of the English language say when their time is up?

Perhaps the most famous last words are spoken by Hamlet;

If thou did'st euer hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicitie awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in paine,
To tell my Storie….
O I dye Horatio:
The potent poyson quite ore-crowes my spirit,
I cannot liue to heare the Newes from England,
But I do prophesie th'election lights
On Fortinbras, he ha's my dying voyce,
So tell him with the occurrents more and lesse,
Which haue solicited. The rest is silence. O, o, o, o.

(Hamlet, V ii, 3832-4847)

Of course, people usually only remember the first bit of this speech. The beautiful part. I can only hope to be half as eloquent on my death bed (or, as in Hamlet’s case, stretched across the ground after having lost a duel and watched my mother be poisoned by my step-father while he lies dying from my own blade). Hamlet recognizes he is dying, he concedes the Country to the invading forces, and then passes in moans of pain. In doing so, Hamlet denies his own decree. “The rest is silence” he says, before letting out increasingly weaker moans of distress. Even in death, Hamlet remains contrary- unable to follow his own orders. Unable to act upon what he has set out to do. He is consistent then, his true self upon the last moment of his life.

Another famous set of last words (though perhaps people don’t realize they are quoting a death rattle when they use them) are given by Richard Plantagenet:

A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdome for a Horse.

(Richard III, V iv, 3840)

This comes from a character who has consistently been able to connive and cannodle anything he wants out of any other character. Here, in death, he is stripped of that ability. He begs for the necessities of battle. Unable to acquire them, he is slaughtered by his own inadequacy (finally). These last words reflect the universe stripping Richard of his unrighteous gains in order to give him his just deserts. It is also a reminder that not everyone can predict their death and give an eloquent speech, sometimes we die pleading for what would save us.

Of course, how could I discuss death without discussing the most famous lovers of all time? Both Romeo and Juliet have memorable closing remarks, though in very different ways. Here is Romeo:

…Eyes looke your last:
Armes take your last embrace: And lips, O you
The doores of breath, seale with a righteous kisse
A datelesse bargaine to ingrossing death:
Come bitter conduct, come vnsauory guide,
Thou desperate Pilot, now at once run on
The dashing Rocks, thy Sea-sicke wearie Barke:
Heere's to my Loue. O true Appothecary:
Thy drugs are quicke. Thus with a kisse I die.

(Romeo and Juliet, V iii, 2969-2977)

Romeo is a fine balance between the lovely and the practical. He gives his rehearsed speech, he says his goodbye to the world, he even has one of the most dramatic toasts of all time. Then, finished, reality sets in. Much like Hamlet’s “O, o o o”, Romeo is unable to stop at merely the lovely. We find Romeo the human being in his last line- perhaps more revealing and more truthful than anything he had previously spoken. Far from the flowering poetry he spoke but a moment before, Romeo’s final utterance is shiveringly real. Succinct. To the point. It is his life, encompassed.

Juliet is similar:

Yea noise?
Then ile be briefe. O happy Dagger.
‘Tis in thy sheath, there rust and let me die.

(Romeo and Juliet, V iii, 3032-3035)

No long speech. No dramatic toast. Merely the truth. Instructions. Practicality. She has no time for anything else. She is blatant, straightforward and simple, yet poetic. There is nothing brutal about Juliet’s last words. They are kind, gentle, personifying the dagger as something to be rejoiced in rather than feared. It will free her, let her die rather than cause her to die. Juliet releases life as simply as an exhale and nearly as silently.

A less famous parting speech is spoken by Antony:

The miserable change now at my end,
Lament nor sorrow at: but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former Fortunes
Wherein I liued. The greatest Prince o'th'world,
The Noblest: and do now not basely dye,
Not Cowardly put off my Helmet to
My Countreyman. A Roman, by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish'd. Now my Spirit is going,
I can no more.

(Antony and Cleopatra, IV xv, 3062-3070)

Antony’s last words also mirror his life. They are strong, practical, and giving. He counsels his friends to remember him in a happier time, a mightier time. He turns the thoughts of Cleopatra to himself at his prime. He eulogizes himself, summing his life up in a necessarily succinct piece. Antony is not terse, but he certainly isn’t a Romeo. No flowers for him, but rather marble monuments. He dies a warrior and a prince. Though in the arms of his lover, he does not die swooning. He simply stops. He can no more.

Another warrior who exits the stage in a flight of glory is the notorious and infamous Macbeth:

I will not yeeld
To kisse the ground before young Malcolmes feet,
And to be baited with the Rabbles curse.
Though Byrnane wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou oppos'd, being of no woman borne,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body,
I throw my warlike Shield: Lay on Macduffe,
And damn'd be him, that first cries hold, enough.

(Macbeth, V viii, 2468-2475)

MacB actually runs off the stage fighting. He curses, spits, fights, and the next we see of him Macduff is carrying his head to the assembled Scottish Lords. This is again a character in the pinnacle of his life at the moment before his death; he is bright, bold, arrogant. He knows he will lose this battle, but he does not run. He throws up his shield and taunts his impending doom.

But what are Macbeth’s other choices? He certainly cannot grow anymore (as he is already King), he may fade back into obscurity rotting in some dungeon somewhere, but his story is over. Byrnane Wood has come to Dunsinane, the witches’ prophecies have all been fulfilled. There is no more destiny for Macbeth, no other part of the story for him. He must die, he has no choice in that. His only choice is how he does die.

So what will I say when facing down my death? Will I have flowery poetry, be begging for the necessities of life, be ready to face the reaper head on, eulogize myself? Will I find some truth about the deepest core of my humanity in that moment, or will I just fade into obscurity? Will it be offstage or onstage? Or will someone simply announce in the fifth act that “his commandment is fulfilled that Rosincrance and Guildensterne are dead” (Hamlet, V ii, 3864-3865). I don’t think there are any answers to these questions until the moment of their certainty, and I hope to be asking them for many years to come before that certainty arrives.

I will conclude this little jaunt into the macabre with a thought from Cymbeline. When Guiderius and Arviragus set Imogen (as Fidele) in her tomb in IV ii (lns 2576-2600), they speak the following poem because they have no voices to sing. My own voice does not feel the jubilation to be lifted into song at present. I am tired. I am sad. So, once again, I will rely upon Shakespeare to sing for me.

Feare no more the heate o'th'Sun,
Nor the furious Winters rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast don,
Home art gon, and tane thy wages.
Golden Lads, and Girles all must,
As Chimney-Sweepers come to dust.

Feare no more the frowne o'th'Great,
Thou art past the Tirants stroake,
Care no more to cloath and eate,
To thee the Reede is as the Oake:
The Scepter, Learning, Physicke must,
All follow this and come to dust.

Feare no more the Lightning flash.
Nor th'_all-dreaded Thunderstone.
Feare not Slander, Censure rash.
Thou hast finish'd Ioy and mone.
All Louers young, all Louers must,
Consigne to thee and come to dust.

No Exorcisor harme thee,
Nor no witch-craft charme thee.
Ghost vnlaid forbeare thee.
Nothing ill come neere thee.
Quiet consumation haue,
And renowned be thy graue.

June 21, 2010

Hear me, Beatrice

A week ago today, I gave a talk at the annual Pawling Shakespeare Club end-of-year luncheon. The club has been in existence for 112 years this year and is one of the oldest continually meeting clubs in the country.

Initially started as a book club for elite women (an endeavor unique in and of its own), eventually membership was opened up to men. The club reads two plays a year and meets on Monday evenings for three months in the Fall then again for three months in the Spring (much like college semesters). This past year, they read Richard III and Much Ado about Nothing. This year, club president Marie DiLorenzo proudly announced at the luncheon, the club would be reading the only two plays which have gone unread by its contingent for the past thirty years: Cymbeline and Pericles.

Sitting in the private party room of a lovely local Italian restaurant (made to look like a wine cellar) as a guest of the club, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the people around me. Here were individuals, all of them over the age of fifty and many of them holding much greater seniority than that, continuing to expand their own minds. There is Intellectual life after Graduate School! Here were people who continue to strive to connect with a world of literature that most chose to leave in the dregs of their college careers. Here were intelligent, creative and driven people who have the chutzpah to read not just one but two plays which may be entirely unfamiliar to them every year, meet together, and discuss these plays. Analyze. Critique. Speak theoretically. Most importantly, here were people who carried a long tradition of parlor Shakespeare to the present day.

By “parlor Shakespeare” I mean a romanticized practice all-but-outdated of individuals assembling to read aloud together for each other. “You be Romeo and I’ll be Juliet. Here’s a Norton…. Go.” This sort of chicanery is certainly not the soul purpose of the Pawling Shakespeare Club, but I have been told that it is of primary interest to club members. And I, personally, could not be more delighted.

Here’s a little tidbit for you; the word “audience” shares the same etymology as the word “audio” (the Latin word “audire”, “to hear”). Perhaps the connection seems obvious now that I’ve put the two words together, but I know I didn’t make it until it was pointed out to me. This little factoid becomes important imminently. In modern times, we assemble as an audience to “see a play”. In Shakespeare’s time, an audience would assemble to “hear a play”. The distinction is abundantly clear, and one lost to our visually-driven culture. What with film, television, video games, computer screens, and a plethora of other digital media, we are a culture that demands and craves constant visual stimulation. Without it, we (literally) tune out.

Perhaps this is why modern audiences sometimes find Shakespeare’s plays so inaccessible. You ask any High Schooler who hates Shakespeare (and my grandmother will gleefully reveal that once upon a time I was one of them) and that teenager will tell you it is because she finds dear William difficult to read. Well there’s a few good reasons for that. The first is that Shakespeare was never meant to be read, it was meant to be heard. Take this famous example;

Richard: Now is the winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Son of Yorke…

(Richard III I I 1-2). Reading this line, you say “Certainly, Son of York, we know who that is… it’s a man who was born into the house of York”. If you know a little something about the play, perhaps you even say, “Oh, check it out, he’s talking about Edward”. But what you probably do not say is what you miss by not hearing the line. Read the line out loud to yourself. Go on. Do it. Nobody’s watching. Okay, maybe if you’re in a library you may want to wait until you get home to do so, but at least try to whisper it.

Get anything you didn’t get before? How about a nice little double entendre? Take a gander at this… The winter is a time of cold. It is turned into glorious summer by a change in temperature. How else is a change in temperature created but by the presence of the sun? Try reading the lines again, but this time, read them this way…

Richard: Now is the winter of our Discontent,
Made glorious Summer by this Sun of Yorke…

The meaning is similar, but certainly tweaked. The Sun of Yorke evokes an image of Edward not just as the glorious monarch of England with his household heraldry wafting behind him in an action-movie-style breeze, but also one that will warm and please the world. He begins to have cherubim qualities, a golden halo that surrounds and suffuses those around him. Moreover, he appears to us in a sort of Monty-Python’s-God-esque motif (a la this). Shakespeare uses the verbal double entendre which his audio-centric audience would certainly have been sensitive to to establish Edward as a cosmic force; not just of an age, but for all time.

Thereby, if a group of people merely read Shakespeare and absorb him through the eyes, they miss an entire world of the playwright’s intention. This is part of what makes Shakespeare so important to experience rather than read. He is a playwright of the senses and much be treated as such.  Read.  Aloud.  Together.  

So back in the wine cellar, while we chatted and I waxed poetic about the quirks and eccentricities of the first folio that make it a text worthy of note rather than to be shoved to the back of the bookcase, it occurred to me. Though these people were hedge scholars, though they were brought together by interest rather than any expertise in the material (don’t get me wrong, there were certainly experts in fields other than Early Modern Theatre sitting in that room with me), they had caught onto something entirely lost upon most modern readers.

Shakespeare is communal. It brings us together as audiences, certainly, but also as friends. If we can sit in parlors and debate the meaning of Olivia’s epically cryptic “If one should be a prey, how much the better/To fall before the Lion, then the Wolfe?” (Twelfth Night III i, 1342-43) over coffee, perhaps this discussion can bring us closer to some communal harmony. We all know that Shakespeare touches upon the raw nerve of universal humanity, perhaps discussion and discovery of this can bring us together as humans.

Like any member of the Pawling Shakespeare Club can attest to, it can certainly bring us together as colleagues and friends. Especially if there are snickerdoodles involved.

June 18, 2010

James Cameron and the Furries (a Review of Avatar)

Okay, I caved. It took me long enough.

I think my colleague hit the nail on the head with this one when he said, “Whenever I ask someone why I should see 'Avatar', they tell me ‘because it’s visually stunning’. I need a better reason than that to want to sit my butt in a chair for three hours and watch a movie”. The story, as the universe at large would tell it to those who stubbornly refused to see the movie, was one we had heard before. Fern Gully in Space. Pocahontas on the Moon. Imperialism at its best with some good old-fashioned furry undertones thrown in.

So I went in expecting the environmentalists on magic mushrooms. What I didn’t expect was what nobody had told me, and what I believe to be the true core of this movie.

Maybe you know people who play any number of games including tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, online MMOs including World of Warcraft, Live Action Role Playing Games such as NERO (lightning bolt man aside). Maybe you’re one of those people. If not, let me explain it to you. You live your normal hum-drum life; go to work, take out the trash, perform all manner of assorted mundane activities which constitute your reality. But then, for a few hours, a weekend, sometimes longer depending on the game, you can become someone else in a fantasy world. You insert yourself into a communally agreed-upon reality in which your normal problems don’t matter anymore and in fact pale in comparison to the epic adventures which await you while in the guise of your alter ego.

This is 'Avatar'. Jake is a marine whose real life sucks because his spine was severed so his legs don’t work and his PhD brother was shot for no particular reason (oh and everyone wishes it had been Jake who was shot instead). Anyway, Jake gets the opportunity to step in for his brother on a mission to an alien planet. In Jake’s world, science has progressed enough to create “avatars”. Biomechanically engineered bodies whose genes are some splice between that of their driver and that of some alien species (in this case, the blue cat-people we’ve seen in the trailers). Jake’s genetics match his brother’s closely enough to be able to drive his brother’s avatar. The government doesn’t want to throw out all the money they invested in creating the avatar, so Jake is asked to step in.

Jake, of course, likes his life better as a cat-person. He can run, fight, explore the forest with his cat-person girlfriend, fly on dragon monsters, and learn all about this other society that the anthropologists have so far been unable to penetrate for whatever reason. The movie depicts the troubles of the cat-people as the white oppressor tears apart their forest (big surprise, I know). To me, more importantly, it depicts Jake’s dependency upon the life he lives while outside of his own body. He becomes more and more negligent of his actual body (frequently forgetting to eat, shower, etc.) as his obsession with driving his avatar deepens. As Jake becomes increasingly dependant upon the life of the avatar to escape his real life, the movie shows us less and less of Jake as a human. The human world still asserts itself at semi-frequent intervals, but without Jake. We are shown the army base and other characters interacting (perhaps even around Jake’s body while he is out in the jungle with his furry friends), but Jake himself is absent from his own world. At one point, Jake admits that reality has flipped – he begins to wonder if his life as a cat-person is (in fact) reality and his humanity is the dream.

It isn’t just Jake who depends upon some outside body to escape from his life. The movie is full of characters who seem unable to function as people without the assistance of some technologically advanced shell in which to insert themselves. The Big Bad Evil Chief of the White Men Colonel Miles Quaritch has a giant robot suit (reminiscent of a less-colorful malevolent power ranger), cute tough girl on base Trudy is a pilot and seldom depicted outside of her plane (certainly when she is she is not given an important role or personality which doesn’t center around the machine).

There are only two characters in the movie who don’t seem to be utterly dependent upon their avatars to survive. Dr. Grace Augustine and Norm Spellman, both scientists who have cat-people selves, seem to have reached some equilibrium with their alternate realities. Unlike the others, they have important and meaningful interactions while still in their (gasp) human bodies. Though the core of their work is performed as the avatars, it is continued through into their real lives as politics, scientific advances, and well… real life unfolds.

The endings these characters receive further re-enforce their levels of dependence upon their other selves. The Colonel is killed after a massive fight with Jake and his cat-girlfriend while still in the power ranger suit. Trudy dies in her plane. Grace dies on the cat-person operating table while they attempt to put her spirit permanently into her avatar. Norm is allowed to stay with the cat-people, it is unclear whether he remains human or becomes perma-furry.

The one that gets me the most is Jake. The entire movie would have been a beautiful tragedy, a statement about what happens when you allow some imagined alternative life to overcome your true existence, if not for this ending. The cat-people use some cat-people magic to transport Jake’s soul into his avatar. He becomes a cat-person.

What? Really? Come on, James Cameron, give us something to bite on! What kind of message is this? “If you wish hard enough, all of your problems will go away because your escapist universe will accept you permanently and you can live with the fairies and dragons and your online girlfriend happily ever after”. I think I’m going to be sick. This tells every WoW addict out there that, if they just play enough WoW, WoW can become their true reality. They don’t have to live in their mothers’ basements, they can be elfish wizards!

Please don’t mistake me, I’m all for a healthy dose of escapism. However, there’s a limit to it. Too many people who want to escape their lives become like Jake. Instead of dealing with their problems to make their lives better, they chose to ignore them permanently. And Avatar tells them this is a good idea because it will make all of their problems dissolve into cat-person bliss.

And yes, Jake’s reality as a cat-person was better than that as a human, but who is to say that if he had taken half the time and effort to improve his real life that he had invested into being a cat-person this would not have changed? Jake tells us at the beginning of the movie that medical science has advanced enough to be able to fix a spine, he simply can’t afford the procedure. Granted, there is nothing he can do about his brother’s death, but you can’t tell me that Jake was a hopeless cause. He was smart, talented, obviously capable, why couldn’t his human life have been made not to suck rather than the movie giving him an easy out? Jake’s humanity, thus devalued, is something to shed not work at. And it tells us that our problems are too great to overcome without magical cat-people.

Suffice to say I was less than happy with 'Avatar'’s ending, despite having enjoyed the ride more than this snarky review will let on. As much as I hate to admit it, it was visually stunning. It was an interesting story (if trite and overdone). And I will perhaps watch it again, if only to prep a paper on the dangers of addiction.

June 16, 2010

Verse like Pros

I saw something amazing this past Friday.

I was sitting on a blanket in the grass of a park in Providence. I should qualify this statement a little. Even though this place is on the books as a National Park (it has Park Rangers and everything), it’s really just a slip of green cut between two bustling streets. Right on the Providence River there is a road. Right on that road there is a triangle of grass and trees which constitutes Roger Williams National Park. Inside this park is a stretch of pavement and a few picnic benches which set the stage for the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry VIII.

The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre has been on a sabbatical from the Shakespeare scene for twenty years. Director Bob Colonna began TRIST performing on barges in the Providence harbor and has since graduated to this tiny strip of paradise (after aforementioned break from all things Bardy).

The production was billed to me as what amounted to community-theatre-Shakespeare. It was done with non-professional actors (a great deal of them college students) in makeshift costumes using clip lights gaffed to telescoping camera stands and a light board jury-rigged inside a wine box. The audience sat on blankets in the grass or metal folding chairs and were cautioned to sit close to the actors as there was no sound system and frequent interruptions were provided by modern traffic from the streets on either side of this thin little strip.

I am a snob. I will be the first to admit it. I was not expecting much.

But wowy zowy did this production deliver.

It wasn’t stellar subject matter. Henry VIII is a cantankerous, contentious, contemptuous piece, most suspect not even written by Shakespeare himself (and frankly I personally fall into this camp). The verse is stilted and fumbling, the plot structure is like a movie trailer of Shakespeare’s canon (stealing famous bits from other plays and mish-moshing them together to create something “new”). To top it off, I am always wary when I see actors wearing "costumes" pulled from their personal closets.

But sitting there, watching this simple, breathless production, I couldn’t help but be amazed at what was before me. Here, under Colonna’s guidance, was a troop of individuals with nominal training spouting verse like pros (pun thoroughly intended). The simplicity of the delivery punctuated the actuality of each moment. The words weren’t bogged down by ACTING or some high-brow attempt to make this reality, this was simply real. Henry himself was commanding and rotund, the Cardinal was thoroughly menacing, Katherine of Aragon was sufficiently regal to carry through her moments of adolescent petulance, and (most importantly) I didn’t look at my watch once throughout the entire production. Music provided by the multi-talented cast wafted in and out of this gleeful romp (didn’t think you’d ever hear Henry VIII referred to as a “gleeful romp”, did you?) setting appropriate tones for the unfolding drama. When the show was cheesy, it was delightfully self-aware. When it was dramatic, it was breathtakingly natural. The stakes continually rose and fell along with the zodiac of the country as travesty and joy befell the princely affairs played before us.

In short, I was mesmerized. Why isn’t more Shakespeare like this? This production, a simple affair echoing its forefathers with groundlings on their blankets in the grass and more prudish types on un-cushioned chairs behind, is (to me) the essence of Shakespeare. There I was with just the language and the actors, and no pretense between. It was as though I could reach out and touch the Bard himself, as though his world had become part of my world, and that, my friends, is good theatre. On the grass, under the stars, wrapped in a blanket to stave off the unseasonable chill, I was seeing something which gave me hope for any person who says “I can’t understand Shakespeare”. This free evening of entertainment, held in a public place, is not only monetarily and physically accessible to everyone, it is also intellectually accessible. Clear as a tumbler of good vodka, precise as an actor who has been forced to bartend to make ends meet cashing out at the end of the night, and all this from a group of unpaid non-professionals.

Which to me begs the question: how did we allow our Shakespeare to become so bogged down with snobbery and congested with befuddling intellectualism that we lost touch of this? Why is it that a big-budget production (which many consider too high-brow to even attend) is the first thing which comes to the minds of most Americans when they think of our dear old bard? And why is it that I cringe at the mere thought of unschooled amateurs mouthing the words of Dear William when I will happily gobble up any High School Musical that crosses my path?

I refuse to believe that I am the only one. Somewhere along the way, Shakespeare grew too good for free evenings of entertainment in public parks. He grew too godly for laymen. He was no longer fuel for mechanicals, but rather was reserved as a feast for Kings.

Perhaps it is time for some re-examination. As the internet is revolutionizing television by provided cheap and freely available alternatives, so should productions like this revolutionize and challenge live theatre. If the amateurs continue to cook up quality, the pros are going to have to reach to compensate. And I can only hope that they do. A community rooted in creativity cannot afford to rest upon laurels, it must constantly reach, strive, and adjust. It must challenge itself or die. And everyone (theatre person or not) can afford to take a page out of Bob Colonna’s book: re-discover, re-invent and above all KEEP IT SIMPLE.

If you would like to catch Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre's Henry VIII (and you should), visit this page for more information. You can also find them on facebook here.