Monday, July 18, 2011

Elizabeth Rex: For whom the bell tolls

By Ann Dunham
Student Blogger

Editor's note: We asked Ann Dunham, a student at Deer Isle-Stoningon High School, to write about her experience of seeing the Opera House Arts productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Elizabeth Rex, which ran in repertory during Shakespeare in Stonington in July. This is part two of her reporting. I like this post because Ann writes about the anticipation of attending a performing art that is taking place within earshot of her regular life. Implicit in her thoughts is the question: When does art begin and end? But she also notes the complex experience of gender. Read Ann's thoughts on Much Ado here.

Every night for about a week, I could hear bells ringing at the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society barn just a few hundred feet down the road, and every night I would grow more and more curious, wondering what exactly was going on in that barn. I knew it was Elizabeth Rex, but I wanted to know more.

I hadn’t had high expectations for this play, as I had had for Much Ado, but after seeing them both, I must say Elizabeth Rex was by far my favorite.

Seeing new characters revealed from behind these other characters I had met in Much Ado was so intriguing and sometimes rather amusing. I was thoroughly engaged by these characters because I felt I already knew them as actors on a stage, and now I was going deeper, learning much more about them than I had in the previous play. As complex as most of Shakespeare’s characters are, I thought the Elizabeth Rex characters were even more so, more real, more cryptic.

The role of gender in this play was my favorite theme, and my favorite line was from Queen Elizabeth: "If you will teach me how to be a woman, I will teach you how to be a man." She was speaking to Ned, an actor who played Beatrice in Much Ado, who had had to act as a woman in order to succeed in his acting career. Quite oppositely, Queen Elizabeth had had to put aside her womanly feelings and act as a man in order to successfully rule England. Their relationship throughout the play was incredibly interesting, and at times funny. Their very existence contradicted the common rules of gender, and I found that very intriguing indeed.

A front-row view of MUCH ADO

By Ann Dunham
Student Blogger

Editor's note: We asked Ann Dunham, a student at Deer Isle-Stoningon High School, to write about her experience of seeing the Opera House Arts productions of
Much Ado About Nothing and Elizabeth Rex, which ran in repertory during Shakespeare in Stonington in July. This is part one of her reporting. I like this post because Ann describes both the surrender of imagination that can occur in theater and the anxiety many theatergoers feel when the fourth wall is broken by actors who interact directly and unpredictably with the audience. Read Ann's thoughts on Elizabeth Rex here.

Much Ado About Nothing was a marvelously funny Shakespearean comedy performed at the Stonington Opera House this summer. I had the unique experience of sitting in the front row for the show, and therefore being very close to all of the action.

Because the Opera House is on the smaller side, the actors use every bit of space to perform, including the aisles. As the play began, I was excited to be sitting front and center because I could see every step, every flip of the wig, every fall in a little more detail than most everyone else. I was getting very into the play as the actors pranced through the Opera House as if their characters were very real.

However, as the play went on, I nearly forgot that these characters were only characters, and became quite nervous, because Benedick, a very powerful, unpredictable character, continued to pace back and forth in front of the first row of seats. I worried what he might do. Perhaps he would once again mimic a bull and charge at anyone within range. Perhaps he would decide to involve one of us front-rowers in one of his dramatic speeches. Luckily, nothing of the sort happened, and I lived to see another day.

While Benedick was sitting on the edge of the stage and walking the aisles, I began to peer behind him at some of the other characters. I noticed their gestures, body language and eye rolls which showed Beatrice’s conflicted relationship with Benedick, Hero’s mad love for Claudio, Antonia’s strict loyalty to her brother.

I also, very amusedly, noticed all of the characters hiding in the background, spying on the greater action of the scene. All of my favorite pieces of the play were ones where someone was eavesdropping behind a corner. Not only because their methods of “hiding” were often ridiculous and hysterical, but also because it was so forbidden and mischievous. All of the overhearing caused quite a convoluted plot, which only made the play more amusing.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Shakespeare, art and the wig moment

Often in a performance, one moment – one gesture, one monologue, one flash of art – catches my attention and lingers in my thoughts long after the show ends. During our public reads of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing this summer at the Stonington Public Library, that "moment" occured when community member and citizen actor Larry Estey read Friar Francis’ monologue about fake-killing Hero so that Claudio can learn a lesson about mourning and love.

In lieu of a recording of Rachel Murdy’s fine performance of the role, here’s a performance of the monologue by an actor in California. He looks like a Friar from the Hood, and like the Unabomber and like Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, but I like the way he animates the language. And I like his dog barking in the background. You can also read the entire scene here.

But back to Estey. He’s a former minister, and his expertise at finding meaning in language was clear as he slowly delivered the Friar’s lines. He wasn’t dramatizing as much as explicating them as he read in a measured, confident style that illuminated the beauty of the cadences and the depth of the ideas. When he was done, our roomful of readers took a collective pause – the effect was striking and penetrating. We knew we had witnessed Estey tapping into a truth, into sentence and solace, as Chaucer called it: the meaning and comfort of art.

A “moment” of a different sort emerged for me during the cast’s performance of the play onstage, and it happened in an unexpected moment: at the curtain call. Craig Baldwin plays two roles in the production – Beatrice (the lead woman) and Borachio (an associate of the play’s bad boy Don John). As Beatrice, Baldwin wears big hair – a wig of blond locks – which he fondles and tosses throughout his performance. As Borachio, he is bald, which is his offstage look, too.

At the curtain call, Baldwin did something that really stunned me: He removed the wig. Not a large gesture, nor one of particular drama. But in that moment, both roles disappeared instantly. It was as if he said: “See? It was all a play. I’m an actor and a man.” It’s not as if we didn’t know all that throughout the performance; there was much made of this point by the creative team throughout the run of the show. But Baldwin’s movements were so elegant and humble in that moment, that the relationship between art and life and the roles we play onstage and off took on new poignancy for me.

Baldwin's action made me think more deeply about Queen Elizabeth I, who wore a wig, and whose Rex-ness was contained in her own body. It's worth noting that Kathleen Turco-Lyon, who plays Queen Elizabeth in both Much Ado and Elizabeth Rex (which ran in repertory with the Shakespeare), shaved her head for the role. It's no wonder (or coincidence) the person Elizabeth connects to the most in Elizabeth Rex is Ned, the Shakespearean actor who plays the women's role and therefore understands the slippery territory of wigs. So the wig is big this year -- in actual architecture and in symbolism. Tracking the wig is like following the crown in Shakespeare's histories. Who wears it wears profound meaning. Taking it off can also be a powerful action.

“The wig removal initially came from me as a sort of tribute to drag performers of a bygone era,” Baldwin later explained to me.

In fact, Baldwin’s thoughts on that moment are worth quoting in full:

It used to be that drag performers would dramatically remove their wig in their curtain call to say: “And all along I was a man!” Some of the famous examples of this can be seen in La Cage aux Folles and Victor/Victoria (which is even more complicated by a woman pretending to be a man playing a woman). It's not done so much any more in drag performance and, in fact, we were worried it might be a little over-the top or “camp” as a gesture. Camp was something we wanted to avoid with the show. I did, however, feel a certain sentimental need (as a gay man myself) to acknowledge the part of this that is a “drag” performance – how it fits into a long history and culture of men playing women. I discussed it with director Cynthia Croot, and she thought we should try it. When we did try it the audience reaction was warm and joyous. It feels like a fun acknowledgement of the cross-gender nature of the performance. As I shave my head bald normally, I think it is particularly visually dramatic in my case to rip off the wig at the end. It always gets a strong reaction. It is not that they don't “know” that I was a man all along. It is that we can all acknowledge together – performer and audience – that something so simple as a wig made the ‘transformation’ of gender possible. It's almost like saying: “What fun we had together pretending that I was a woman!” It is a complicated moment, and almost inexplicable, but it feels satisfying for me and the audience each time, so Cynthia and I decided together to keep it.

I'm grateful they did. We’re at the end of another Shakespeare in Stonington, at the end of our “moment” together with Shakespeare. But if you’re like me, the moment continues. The takeaway for me will be in the ongoing examination between art and life, where we find “ahas” and how they revisit us once we’re back in the real world. The real world? Hmm. Perhaps like gender roles, the difference between life and art may not have as many distinctions as we like to think. It's all very wiggy.