Swimming in a Shakespeare sea

Ready, Portland? The city's about to binge on the Bard with the Complete Works Project. Why? Because it's there.

A while ago I wondered where all the Shakespeare had gone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Lately I’ve been wondering something of the opposite: what’s Portland going to do with all of this Shakespeare?

By now you might have heard that the city’s theater companies and academic institutions have taken a vow to produce the entire canon in the next two years. “37 plays, 2 years, 1 city,” the sponsoring Complete Works Project trumpets its intentions.

Henry Fuseli, "Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers," c. 1812, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches, Tate Britain, London

Henry Fuseli, “Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers,” c. 1812, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches, Tate Britain, London

That’s a lot of blank verse, and otherwise. A lot of murders, and political plots, and mistaken identities, and magical spells, and belly laughs, and meddlesome ghosts, and young lovers, and comic foils, and plays within the plays, and drunken fools, and hot-tempered teenagers, and fairyland creatures, and weird sisters, and ring tricks, and dukes and kings and cutthroats and cutpurses.

The binge begins officially on April 23, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, with a free kickoff celebration three days later at the Gerding Theater at the Armory (where Portland Center Stage’s current Othello is being staged), and ends on April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. (And in Ashland, artistic director Bill Rauch has allayed Bardolators’ fears by announcing that, in spite of cutting back to just three Shakespeares in the 2015 season, the festival by itself will produce the entire canon over the next 10 years.)

Why do this thing? On its Web page, the project answers its own rhetorical question: “Why on Earth not? If we can, we must!”

This is a bit like the mountaineer George Mallory’s response to a query in 1923 about why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Mallory, who had failed in attempts to reach the peak the previous two years and would die the following year in yet a third expedition, famously and perhaps sarcastically replied, “Because it’s there.”

And, of course, the Shakespeare Canon is there, too – as many as 39 plays, depending on how liberally you count collaborations or adaptations, but fairly settled these days on 37 with the latter-day acceptance of The Two Noble Kinsmen. After four centuries it remains the Everest of the theater world, tackled regularly and sometimes conquered but never defeated: after every attempt, it remains, impassive, unsullied, ready for the next assault.

As Everest shifts with the winds and storms and avalanches and cave-ins, so are Shakespeare’s plays changeable things. Interpretations are seemingly endless, affected by time and place and culture and casting and talent and assumptions and emphases. Just recently we’ve seen radically differing approaches to Lear at Bag&Baggage and Northwest Classical Theater Company, and a lean and funny Hamlet at Post5, and a Harlem Renaissance Comedy of Errors and butoh-touched Tempest in Ashland. There are lots and lots of ways to do Shakespeare, and for the Complete Works Project, that’s part of the point. Maybe you’re watching Twelfth Night, again. But whose Twelfth Night is it, anyway?

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Shakespeare regularly splashes over into other disciplines, from novels to opera to symphonic music to dance to visual art. And how other artists (including actors, designers, and directors) interpret Shakespeare can be revealing. Seeing PCS’s Othello over the weekend got me rooting around online, looking for painted images of the play. I didn’t find as many as I might’ve expected (Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream do better) but I ran across a beguiling 1834 portrait by François Boucher of the opera singer Maria Malibran as Desdemona in Rossini’s opera Otello. And that made me look up Malibran, who was a compelling figure, one of the most celebrated singers of her time. A mezzo-soprano with unusual range, she was greatly admired by the likes of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Rossini, and Donizetti. The painter Eugène Delacroix demurred, criticizing her for (as Wikipedia puts it) “lacking refinement and class and trying to ‘appeal to the masses who have no artistic taste.’” (The meticulous essayist and critic Edmund Wilson, author of To the Finland Station and Apologies to the Iroquois, dismissed Barbra Streisand on the same grounds.)

François Boucher, “Portrait de la Malibran en Desdémone,” 1834, oil on canvas, Musée de la vie romantique, on long-term loan from the Louvre.

François Boucher, “Portrait de la Malibran en Desdémone,” 1834, oil on canvas, Musée de la vie romantique, on long-term loan from the Louvre.

Malibran appears to have had some of the wayward qualities that Othello, goaded by Iago, attributed to Desdemona. Certainly she was strong-willed, if not necessarily duplicitous. She was either forced by her father into a hasty marriage to a wealthy New York banker who then proceeded to go bankrupt, or married to get out from under her father’s heavy hand. She left her banker after a year, took up with a Belgian violinist, lived in common-law marriage with him for eight years, and bore him a child. Like Desdemona, she would die young, after falling from a horse at age 28.

Maybe Delacroix objected more to Malibran’s freestyle, liberated life than her voice. He, too, painted Desdemona, in a work from about 1850 titled Desdemona Cursed by Her Father, and the image could hardly be more different from Boucher’s painting of Malibran. The Boucher depicts a vibrant, frankly sensuous, independent beauty. The Delacroix, now housed at the Brooklyn Museum, portrays a weeping Nellie, on her knees, clutching at her father’s robe, utterly distraught and apparently begging for forgiveness. It’s impossible to imagine Boucher’s Malibran in such a servile position. And it’s a far, far cry from the Desdemona that Nikki Coble portrays at Portland Center Stage. Coble is self-contained, self-assured, equal in every way to her father’s outrage, pointing out calmly that while she continues to love him, her primary attachment is now to her husband. She’ll regret the break with her father, but she won’t weep over it: It was his choice, not hers.

It’s fascinating that two such divergent images of the same character exist. But the theater’s like that, and especially Shakespeare. His plays have a shape, but they’re also plastic, open to interpretation. That malleability helps explain why we’ve been watching them for more than 400 years: they’re touchstones, but they’re also shapeshifters. One of the things I like about Coble’s Desdemona and Daver Morrison’s Othello at PCS is that both carry themselves with dignity. They’re not just wimpy victims of Iago’s plotting. On the contrary, they bravely defy the prejudices that would ordinarily have kept them apart. But they’re also products of their place and time, which conspire against them as effectively as Iago does. And because I’m a 21st century American watching a 21st century production of an early 17th century play, thoughts of contemporary racial and feminist issues (why does Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale seem less and less like a fantasy as the years roll by?) also inevitably tumble into my mind: thoughts, perhaps, that might have seemed alien to Shakespeare himself. But, so what? The man fades. The play remains.

Eugène Delacroix, "Desdemona Cursed by Her Father," c. 1850, oil on cradled panel, 16 x 12.6 inches, Brooklyn Museum

Eugène Delacroix, “Desdemona Cursed by Her Father,” c. 1850, oil on cradled panel, 16 x 12.6 inches, Brooklyn Museum

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The night before I saw Othello, I went to Reed College to see a Julius Caesar that on the surface seemed as different as possible from PCS’s gorgeous, Rembrandt-lighted, invigoratingly traditional Othello: performed by students rather than professionals, with a glam-rock Caesar and Antony, a black-leather Brutus and fellow conspirators, a booming bullhorn, and actors racing up and down the scaffold-like courtyard levels of the college’s new studio theater. Unlike director Chris Coleman’s Othello, which takes a scrupulously literal approach to gender in its casting (unless you consider that in Shakespeare’s time, the three women’s roles would have been played by boy actors), Reed’s Caesar danced willy-nilly over gender expectations, with women taking men’s roles all over the battlefield, and it turned out not to make a difference at all: just a teeny tiny leap of faith.

Yet beneath its bells and whistles, Julius Caesar was very much like Othello: both productions are faithful to their scripts, which are among the more streamlined and focused in Shakespeare’s canon. The two plays have intriguing comparisons and emotional parallels that skitter along together and then diverge: Desdemona to Antony, Cassius to Iago, Brutus to Othello. And both directors followed the cues in the scripts, creating their own versions of veracity. Caesar was, of course, a college show. But it was smart and well-formed and literate and true to an informed interpretation of the script, and it worked.

This didn’t surprise me. Julius Caesar was directed by Kathleen Worley, and it was her last show – or at least, her last as a member of the theater faculty at Reed before retiring at the end of this term. She’s been a quiet force on the city’s theater scene for a long time, and now that she won’t be teaching, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see her name popping up more frequently in the credits for shows around town.

Kathleen Worley

Kathleen Worley

Before landing at Reed in 1985, Kathleen did a lot of acting on professional stages, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to the ACTs of both San Francisco and Seattle. She performed on Portland stages with the likes of future stage and television writer Eric Overmyer (The Wire, Treme) and the late movie and television regular Diana Bellamy. And, just to bring this thing full circle back to Shakespeare, she was in the premiere of Michael Weller’s The Ballad of Soapy Smith, which inaugurated Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre in 1983. Denis Arndt starred in Seattle and New York as Weller’s con-man title character. He also spent several celebrated seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during the Jerry Turner years, creating memorable leads in the likes of The Entertainer, The Iceman Cometh, and Coriolanus. And this season he’s back in Ashland, back at the well, starring as a teacherly, wise, almost benign Prospero, bringing life to fruition in The Tempest. Shakespeare, again? Must be for the love of the game.

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Which brings us back to Mallory, the mountaineer. Why the canon? Because it’s there, of course. But consider, too, this lesser-known Mallory explanation of what kept him coming back to Everest: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

So maybe we do Shakespeare, sometimes, simply because there is endless joy in the wonderfully variable exploration. The Complete Works Project might bring a little glory, and a few brave but unsuccessful attempts, and some radical approaches, and some mixed successes, and some unexpected storms near the summit: sometimes familiar paths will look familiar, and sometimes, re-explored, they’ll look surprisingly different. If we believe Mallory, all of that, in a way, is beside the point. The mountain’s there. Why not?

Bring it on, Portland. It’s well past the ides of March. Let’s see what you’ve got.

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2 Responses.

  1. Michael says:

    So proud to be part of this. (BTW, the kickoff party is April 26th, Shakespeare’s christening date, not the 23rd, his presumed birthday.)

  2. Bob Hicks says:

    Thanks, Michael. We’ll amend the story to reflect that.

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