Since Shakespeare has been dominating my reading of late, and because I suck at writing up full-length reviews of classics, I thought I’d take you through the first month of this #ProjectShakespeare experience with me.
Project Shakespeare, if you didn’t see me mention it before, was an idea that my friend Abby came up with, to gather a group of friends and read/perform a different Shakespeare play every Saturday night until we’re out of quarantine. We’ve done four plays so far, so let’s go through them:
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
my roles: Hippolyta, Snug, Moth
A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I go way back. My acting debut (and also… the last time I acted) was in a performance of Midsummer that my fifth grade class put on. At the time I desperately wanted to play Puck, and given the fact that in fifth grade MY NICKNAME WAS PUCK, not being given the role of Puck felt like a personal attack that I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from. (I spitefully memorized Puck’s if we shadows have offended monologue, which I can still recite to this day.)
Despite this traumatic event, I have a very strong fondness for Midsummer. Being eleven at the time this was obviously my first exposure to Shakespeare, and I found it weird and enchanting. Fairies, mischief, a play within a play… what’s not to love? What struck me as an adult is how good of an ensemble play this is – is there even a main character?! – it’s no wonder that so many schools and community theatres opt for this one. It’s also just unabashedly fun in a way that entertains rather than grates.
And shoutout to my friend Patrick for serving us the hammiest portrayal of Bottom that the (virtual) stage has ever seen.
my role: Miranda
In contrast, The Tempest was new to me! I knew it was Abby’s favorite play and had been looking for a good excuse to read it for a while now, and I’m glad I did. Before I read it she predicted ‘you’ll like it but it won’t be your new favorite’ and I’d say that’s an accurate assessment. Though I suppose it can technically classified as a comedy, it’s decidedly less comedic than Shakespeare’s more carefree plays – there’s a real thematic heft to it that compelled me so much that I think if the ending had culminated in tragedy and bloodshed, it would have been a new favorite after all (sorry, I’m predictable).
Reading the script a few days before requesting a role, I was most drawn to Miranda, so I decided to throw my name in the hat for the play’s only canonical female character, who I did end up playing. Miranda has been my favorite character to play so far – in some ways she’s the archetype of The Ingenue; innocent, loving, trusting, filled with more compassion than experience. But her upbringing adds a layer of complexity – she’s never seen the face of another woman, she’s lived a life entirely subservient to her father in the microcosmically patriarchal society that he’s created on this island. Still she shows an inherent moral goodness which at times is in conflict with her father’s own agenda; in fact, the first time we’re introduced to Miranda it’s in the context of her challenging her father; the play’s hero automatically taken down a peg by his teenaged daughter. (The scene that results from this argument also reminded me so strongly of the dynamic between Valjean and Cosette in Les Misérables that it tugged at my heartstrings.)
Anyway, The Tempest was a joy to read and perform, and one that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who’s a little intimidated by Shakespeare and isn’t sure where to start. The language was some of the most accessible yet beautiful that I’ve read in any Shakespeare play – O brave new world, That has such people in’t!
my roles: First Officer, Curio
Twelfth Night is not my favorite, and not just because my first exposure to it was an incredibly bizarre community production which was entirely period except for the unexplained choice to make Fabian a surfer dude. (Who is Fabian, anyway?) The thing about Twelfth Night is that none of the couples are particularly worth rooting for – Viola is great, and naturally we want her happiness, but Orsino is such a dunce it’s hard to be thrilled about that conclusion. It’s also hard to rejoice in Malvolio’s comeuppance, because what has Malvolio even done that that’s outrageous other than be a bit of a Squidward?! (High literary analysis you’re getting here.)
Nevertheless, I enjoy it. It’s gay, it’s chaotic, it’s got some strong characters (I particularly love Viola and Olivia) and great comedic moments. I just find it curiously cold overall. Still, another strong week for Project Shakespeare, with people going harder and harder each week both with props and acting choices.
[changed my 4 star rating to 3 stars a few weeks later – I need to be honest with myself, I am not a big Twelfth Night fan.]
my roles (first show): Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman, Angus, Lord, Third Apparition, Soldiers
my role (second show): Malcolm
That’s right – we put on TWO performances of Macbeth. Since there were so many requests to play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and since it’s everyone’s favorite play (I’m not going to say you’re lying if you say your favorite play isn’t Macbeth, but…), we decided to do our usual Saturday evening show and then put on a Sunday matinee. I think five or six of us did both shows, with our roles incredibly shuffled up on the two days, but some people just did one or the other. On Sunday we were joined by my friends Will and Jess who were a most welcome addition – Will played Macbeth and put on a Scottish accent whose authenticity is dubious but which utterly charmed the group of Americans who were watching it. And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my college roommate Rachel for getting into her bathtub and slathering herself in fake blood for her role of Lady Macbeth – the commitment bar has been raised so high I’m not sure how we’re ever going to top it.
Anyway, Macbeth, what is there even to say? Another fun thing about this is that it’s the first time I’ve read the play since becoming utterly obsessed with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an avant-garde Macbeth retelling set in an abandoned hotel in Chelsea (Manhattan). Hearing lines read aloud by my friends which have been whispered into my ear by performers in the McKittrick was chilling (‘blood will have blood!’)
I also had an excellent time playing Malcolm, a rather uninspiring character for the fact that he’s one of the four characters with the most lines – still, I tried very very hard to breathe some life into him and I had a great time doing it.
I feel like I can’t talk about any of this without talking about the fact that – and I don’t think this comes through very well with my online persona, so I do have to stress this – I am painfully shy. Something like this even five years ago would have mortified me so much that the thought of participating would have made me physically ill. I don’t know what it is that inspired me to finally put myself out there and actually try at something for once in my life that I’m not naturally gifted at, but I think the fact that the stakes are so remarkably low has been soothing my anxiety. Project Shakespeare has also been the one constant in my life that has broken up the monotony of the weeks, so I think I really needed something like this to occupy me as I struggle to concentrate on most other things.
Anyway, that’s all. Tomorrow night we’re doing As You Like It (I’m Celia) and the week after, Hamlet. I will report back in another four weeks on how those went.
Tell me two things in the comments: what’s your favorite Shakespeare play, and what’s the silliest, lowest-stakes thing that’s been a comfort to you during quarantine?
And if you have a group of nerdy friends who could join you as you read early modern plays over Zoom, I cannot recommend something like this highly enough.
Stay safe and stay inside if you can. xx