on rereading If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio
★★★★☆
Flatiron Books, 2017

 

I do not reread books very frequently; between having a pretty decent memory and being in a constant state of intimidation regarding my TBR I rarely feel compelled to revisit books I’ve already read, especially if they aren’t all-time favorites.  If We Were Villains falls into that category; I first read it as an ARC in 2017 (original review here – from before I was any good at writing reviews, hah) and I really enjoyed it – I found it fun and compelling and moving, but it wasn’t a book that I actually expected to revisit at any point.

Cue the unexpected plot twist where I would spend most of 2020 injecting Shakespeare straight into my veins.  If you do go back and read my not very good original review, you’ll see that I actually talk about my opinions on Shakespeare, which were, at the time, middling – in the sense that I had a couple of Shakespeare plays I loved, and I typically enjoyed the productions I’ve gotten the chance to see, but until this year Shakespeare had never been a very big part of my life.  Now (in case you haven’t been following my recent obsession), a group of friends and I spend every Saturday evening performing a different Shakespeare play over Zoom, and I thought that revisiting If We Were Villains in this context would make for a more exciting reading experience than it was for me in 2017.

And yes, it certainly was.  Despite having more issues with this book the second time around – I’ll get to that in a second – I had so much fun with this.  Obviously an informal production over Zoom is not the same as intensive study at a Shakespearean academy, but still; I felt so much more engaged in the drama surrounding character types since I was able to quickly mentally sort every single person in our group into one of the seven types Rio presented (I’m James, if anyone was wondering).  The constant quoting of Shakespeare too took on a whole new life for me; I’ve only been doing this since March, and still I find myself quoting Shakespeare out of context in my daily life.  Yes, the extent that these characters do it is deliberately heightened to the point of being unrealistic, but they’ve also immersed themselves in intensive Shakespearean study every day for four years so I’ll give them a pass.

The one issue I had that I wanted to talk about in some detail is the rather uninspiring treatment of gender.  First to give some context: there are seven fourth year students, 4 boys and 3 girls.  One girl (Wren) is always cast as the ingenue, another (Meredith) as the temptress, and the third girl (Filippa) is put wherever they need a spare actor, either in a male role or a female one.  Filippa constantly laments that she doesn’t have the opportunity to play more female roles; Wren and Meredith are both content with the roles they get cast in.

Now, here’s the thing.  At the beginning of the novel, they’re doing Julius Caesar, and a very big deal is made of the fact that Richard, playing Caesar, doesn’t have anything to do after act 3 when Caesar is killed.  No mention is made of the fact that Wren and Meredith, playing Portia and Calpurnia respectively, are each only in two scenes, and neither returns after act 2.  Calpurnia only has 27 lines (compare to Caesar’s 151 and Brutus’s 721).  Yet both Wren and Meredith are perfectly content with their roles, which they’re implied to have auditioned for, and Filippa’s only grievance is that she can’t play a woman.

This is what I don’t understand.  This is a college production at an experimental arts academy – why in god’s name would none of these three young women audition for Brutus or Cassius?  Why is Filippa more bothered by the fact that she has a male role than a small role?  What performer on earth – regardless of gender – would rather play Calpurnia than Caesar?  And if Rio wanted to fall back on the excuse that this was the 90s and things were altogether less progressive, fine, or even that women are more accustomed to keeping their mouths shut when they get shafted, I’d get it; what I find disingenuous is that this is never addressed.  A lot is made of the male characters’ discontent with the roles they end up playing, but I found the complacency of the female characters incredibly unrealistic.  And you can’t argue that this is besides the point of the novel when the entire premise is rooted in tension over casting.

This isn’t a criticism that overpowered the rest of my reading experience, but it was in the back of my mind pretty much the whole time that I read. But that said, this is a book I really enjoy engaging with and I can see myself returning to it again and again as my own personal relationship with Shakespeare and performing evolves.

Project Shakespeare: month #3 wrap up

It’s kind of mind-blowing that we’re three months into this already, but let’s just dive straight into this!  Months 1 and 2 wrap ups are here and here respectively – see month 1 if you’re unsure what this whole thing is all about.

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Much Ado About Nothing
★★★☆☆
my role (first show): Leonato
my role (second show): Hero

We had another double feature, doing our regular Saturday evening show and then a Sunday matinee.  I played Leonato one day and his daughter Hero the next, two rather different experiences.  Hero is the character that I like and connect with the most in this play, so I was grateful to have the opportunity to play her.  Leonato I didn’t ‘get’ quite as much, so when in doubt, overcompensate by laying on the drunk, corny dad energy thick.

Much Ado was new to me, and I had high hopes as this seems to be everyone’s favorite play – or if not their favorite, at least in their top 5.  I can see why; it’s charming and witty and a healthy dose sassier than its oft-compared Twelfth Night.  I desperately wanted to like it more than I did.  This is the play that really confirmed for me that I’m never going to love the comedies (at least, not this type of comedy; something like The Tempest is a different story).  This week more than most made me really reflect on what works for me in Shakespeare’s plays (and literature in general, more broadly) and what doesn’t.  Ultimately I just need there to be something of consequence at stake, and ‘whether or not Beatrice and Benedick hook up’ just doesn’t do it for me.  I don’t dislike this play at all but neither is it a new favorite.

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The Winter’s Tale
★★★☆☆
my roles: Florizel, Time, Gaoler, First Lady

This play is very tonally uneven, so my thoughts about it are all over the place.  The thing is, I can enjoy both halves of what Shakespeare is doing in this play.  I can get behind an aged ruler making terrible and selfish decisions that lead to the death of his loved ones (Lear) and I can get behind jaunty forest shenanigans (Midsummer), but the fusion of the two… does not work for me here, probably because I don’t find a single one of these characters interesting or compelling in the slightest.  I like isolated moments in this play but overall it really fails to move me.  I do like Florizel well enough though, and playing Time was fun.  This was an enjoyable read-through; we went a bit wild with “exit, pursued by a bear” with everyone providing their own interpretation of The Bear.  But, I don’t know, this one is just a bit too weird for me overall.

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Timon of Athens
★★★☆☆
my roles: Painter, Varro’s Second Man, Third Friend, Some Speak, Third Bandit

Speaking of weird plays… Timon was also new to me and I find it both interesting and underwhelming in equal measure.  Interesting in that it reads more like a fable than a tragedy, and its tone is probably the most singular of any Shakespeare play I’ve read so far (which would make sense, given that it was cowritten), so it was just a bit of a different experience overall.  Underwhelming in that I found the language in this one rather static and not terribly moving (though once Timon begins to descend into madness he does get some poignant monologues), and I didn’t find any of the characters particularly intriguing.

This read-through was just as chaotic as you would expect from a play with 50+ characters, only 4 of whom really have any kind of significant role.  But chaos can be fun sometimes, and that was absolutely the case here.  There were ridiculous accents everywhere, me and Abby poured glasses of water over own heads in a scene where Timon throws water over a crowd of spectators, and the whole thing was grounded by a brilliant, elegant portrayal of Timon by Will, who stayed up until 3 am for this nonsense, for which we were all SO grateful.

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Henry V
★★★☆☆
my roles: Katharine, Duke of Orleans, Duke of York, Sir Thomas Grey

I had a somewhat lukewarm experience reading this script, but while I was reading I had the thought that it would be a terribly compelling play to see on stage.  And indeed, if our performance is anything to go by, damn, this is a brilliant piece of theatre.  This was my favorite Project Shakespeare performance since Lear, and I loved every second of it.  Seeing my college roommate and name twin Rachel shine while playing Hal was probably the highlight, but the leek scene had everyone in hysterics, and getting to perform a whole scene in French is one of my favorite things that I’ve gotten to do in weeks.  She’s a small role, but Katharine quickly became one of my favorite Shakespeare characters – I dare anyone to read this scene of Katharine learning English (linking to No Fear Shakespeare for the English translation) and not be overwhelmed by how cute it is.  I just can’t even explain how great everyone’s energy was for this performance.  Bring on the rest of the histories, tbh!


Up next: a Romeo & Juliet double feature, with me playing Romeo on Sunday, which is… an exciting and terrifying prospect!

book review: The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

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THE INVITED by Jennifer McMahon
★★★☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

Set in the Vermont countryside (in my backyard, essentially), The Invited follows a couple, Helen and Nate, who have just bought property and are building a house from scratch – the only problem being that the land is supposedly haunted. This is the second book I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon (the other being The Night Sister) and honestly I feel similarly about both: I have a soft spot for McMahon and her spooky Vermont ghost stories and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a quick and entertaining read, but they’re not without their significant issues.

The biggest problem with The Invited is that it takes an agonizingly long time to get going. Once it hits its stride it’s juicy enough, but for the first hundred or so pages, you will be inundated with more construction talk than is strictly necessary, and a parallel storyline following 14-year-old Olive failed to come to life for me (mostly because I never really believed Olive’s voice and found her sections a little tonally inconsistent).

What I did thoroughly enjoy though was the central mystery surrounding Helen’s haunted land and the ghost of Hattie Breckenridge. I’d honestly hesitate to classify this as a thriller (there were really only two twists, both of which I found painstakingly obvious), but if you’re in the mood for a compelling enough, unexpectedly subversive ghost story, I’d say this is a pretty safe bet.


You can pick up a copy of The Invited here on Book Depository.

wrap up: May 2020

  1. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell ★★★★★ | review
  2. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  3. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo ★★☆☆☆ | review
  4. King Lear by William Shakespeare (reread) ★★★★★
  5. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  6. Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  7. Bunny by Mona Awad ★★★☆☆ | review
  8. Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  9. Pericles by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  10. Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri ★★★☆☆ | review to come
  11. Hysteria by Jessica Gross ★★★★☆ | review
  12. If All The World And Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton ★★★☆☆ | review to come
  13. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan ★★★★★ | review
  14. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica ★★★★★ | review
  15. Henry V by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆

MAY TOTAL: 15
YEARLY TOTAL: 48

Favorite: King Lear (still)
Runner up: Tender is the Flesh, Exciting Times
Least favorite: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Other posts from May:

Life update:

Still got nothing.

Currently reading:

What was the best book you read in May?  Comment and let me know!

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