December 18, 2014

Seeing is Understanding

Benjamin Curns as Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Sometimes Shakespeare scares me: I’m afraid I won’t understand what’s happening because my mind works slowly, and I’m old enough to be a little hard of hearing, so I have trouble following the language. Between the deviations from conventional syntax required by the meter, the deviations Shakespeare chose because he liked the way they sounded, the number of words he knew that I don’t, and the number of words that meant something different in his day than they do in mine, chances are good that I’ll miss the meaning of a crucial exchange and lose track of the plot, and if I can’t follow what’s happening on the surface, there’s no way I can grasp what’s going on beneath the surface and thus begin to understand what makes his work Important.

And that makes me feel bad about myself, because I’m an English teacher.

So I like to read Shakespeare’s plays before I see them performed. I know that they’re meant to be seen, not read, but if I can untangle some of the sentences over coffee–reading, sipping, slowly thinking–I feel less afraid that I won’t get what’s happening on stage. Worrying is in itself an obstacle to understanding. But last week I didn’t have the time to do that. I set out for Staunton to attend a matinee performance of Much Ado About Nothing at the Blackfriars Playhouse knowing only that the play was a comedy–and that I’d have to speed most of the way down 81 to get to the theater on time.

So I was a little worried that I wouldn’t understand. But I was wrong about that. In fact, the performance underscored the difference between the two-sided conversation between a writer and a reader and the many-sided collaboration that makes live theater exciting and unpredictable.

My wife and I came through the doors at the last minute and were ushered to seats in the midst of what appeared to be a costume party: a dozen old friends in period costumes laughing and singing and shaking tambourines on stage while 100 other people in contemporary clothing sat and watched. And I remembered that this performance was part of the Actors’ Renaissance Season, a three-month period during which the actors at the American Shakespeare Center work like actors might have worked in Shakespeare’s day: no directors, no set designers, little group rehearsal. “Veteran ASC actors mount these shows in a matter of days,” according to the playbill, “gathering their own costumes, their own props, and using scripts that contain only their own lines and their cues.” The objective is to reproduce something like the theater Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen: “exciting, unhinged, flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants entertainment that was often fresh from the quill of the writer.”

That’s why it looked like a party, I guess.

Brandi Rhome as Hero and René Thornton, Jr. as Leonato in Much Ado about Nothing. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

As soon as we sat down, a tall, dignified man in purple and gold shifted from preliminary banter into Leonato’s first line, and the play was off, at a pace that made it impossible to take any notes or even glance at the program, a constant, rushing stream of language and action that shape characters who in turn shape the language and action. Here’s a summary of what happens, as far as I could tell: Claudio falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero, but he’s too shy to approach her directly so his patron, Don Pedro, says he’ll pretend to be Claudio at the masked ball and woo Hero in Claudio’s stead. Pedro’s bastard brother, John, likes to spoil everybody’s party, so he tells Claudio that Pedro actually wants Hero for himself, but Pedro and Claudio work out that misunderstanding, much to John’s dismay, so the bastard hatches another plot to make Claudio think Hero has slept with someone else on the eve of their wedding. This plot works, and instead of marrying Hero, Claudio disgraces her in public by calling her a whore. She swoons and falls, and everybody leaves the church in a huff.

While all that’s going on, Beatrice and Benedick are cracking wise about how stupid people are who fall in love. Some of their comments are directed at lovers in general, in conversations with Hero and Claudio, and others are directed at each other in conversations that made me wonder if one of them had hurt the other during a previous hook-up. Eventually, their friends decide to make them admit that they’d really like to be in love by letting it slip to each of them that the other is in fact in love with him or her already, whereupon Beatrice and Benedick, the staunch feminist and the confirmed bachelor, turn on a dime and profess their love for each other. That’s the most interesting part of the play because it’s clear from the start that those two characters are trying to fool themselves about themselves, and that we’re going to get to watch them turn around. They are also the characters we recognize as most like us, or most like people we know. I can’t believe that wooing a woman on behalf of your friend was ever plausible.

I got all that information not from the script, or from the generous notes in the program, but from the actors, who somehow shape the meaning of their lines with their bodies. And the inverse also seems to occur: the language changes the way the actors think of themselves and thus the way they move and stand and look. It’s a cycle: the actors inflect, articulate and clarify the language with their bodies, creating characters who then inflect the bodies of the actors in some way. Maybe that’s how it always works, but in this production, with nothing else to look at on the stage except the actors, it seemed more obvious to me, and more exciting. And I wonder now if that feedback-loop effect is enhanced by principles or practices associated with the Actors’ Renaissance Season.

For example, I imagine that group of a dozen partying actors looking at the script and then looking at each other and saying, okay: who should play whom?

Neither Rene Thornton, Jr. nor Gregory Jon Phelps can play Benedick because they look like lady-killers, and Benedick’s a bachelor who spends the first half of the play telling us how much he pities men who are attached to women. Give that role to Benjamin Curns. He’s big, balding, and fleshy, and when he stands next to Thornton or Phelps, he looks like the guy who wouldn’t be attached to a woman. When the big clumsy-looking guy disparages relationships with women, I understand that his disdain derives in part from painful experiences of the sort that Phelps and Thornton look unlikely to have had. I also understand his sudden absolute reversal when he believes a woman loves him, a turn so abrupt and complete that it wouldn’t be credible in a more conventionally handsome man.

“Actually,” my wife explained later, “Benedick is often a lady-killer himself, a love-em and leave-em sort who finds pliant women easily seduced and boring.” She’s an English teacher, too. “Beatrice’s wit, spunk, and resistance attract Benedick–for more than sex,” My wife explained. But that wasn’t exactly the dynamic at work in this production.

Benjamin Curns as Benedick and Miriam Donald as Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

So who should play Beatrice, the spark-plug feminist who seems to think that most men are a waste of skin? It would have to be a woman who looks like his counterpart: petite, mouthy, loud, a little bitter. How about Miriam Donald? She could play the flip-side of Benjamin Curns. Sure! But there’s one catch–and this is where the ensemble nature of the Actors’ Renaissance Season comes to the fore: Miriam Donald is six or seven months pregnant. So what! Put her in there anyway. We have to work with what we’ve got. And you don’t realize that her pregnancy makes any difference until she, too, abruptly turns. When she shifts from vilifying men to loving Benedick, you suddenly realize that from the very start her mouth has been telling you one thing while her body has been telling you something else altogether.

In fact, the pregnancy added so much to my understanding of Beatrice that on the way home I asked my wife if she thought the belly was a prop. “No way,” she said. “That woman’s pregnant.”

Then, in the pause before I could speak again, my wife explained, “Sometimes being forced to work with what you have means you wind up with assets you couldn’t have foreseen and you wouldn’t have chosen, which turn out to be exactly right.”

I felt lucky for the rest of the day, for reasons I didn’t understand.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Blackfriars Playhouse until April 8.

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About Mark Dewey

Mark Dewey teaches English at The Potomac School and writes about life near the Shenandoah River. He loves mountain streams, his wife, his children, winter, and the Camino de Santiago. He is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.

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