Saturday, April 7, 2012

Sending The Bard A Birthday Card

April is a month filled with historical markers. It begins with April Fool's Day (which is celebrated here in San Francisco with the annual St. Stupid's Day Parade). For Americans, April contains the deadline for filing one's income tax returns. This year, April 15 also marks the passage of 100 years since the RMS Titanic sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic on a cold, dark night in 1912.

While the miracles of Easter and Passover are frequently celebrated during April, this month also contains the birth and death of one of the world's greatest playwrightsWilliam Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616.

According to Wikipedia, the earliest known account of Shakespeare's Macbeth relates to a performance at the Globe Theatre in April of 1611. More than 400 years later, Thailand banned screenings of Shakespeare Must Die (a Thai-language adaptation of Macbeth by director Ing Kanjanavanit). How's that for staying relevant?

The ability of Shakespeare's plays to captivate audiences over the course of four centuries is obviously due to the quality of his writing, the complexity of his characters, and the timeliness of his plots. Not a day goes by that someone, somewhere isn't involved in the planning or performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

Not only have Shakespeare's works survived directorial updating and near-villainous tampering with the text, they are still taught in high schools and colleges around the world.  What has changed (very much for the better) is the wealth of teaching tools now available in the classroom and on the Internet -- as well as through direct streaming and video rentals.

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A new documentary directed by Alex Rotaru focuses on teenagers from a variety of high schools whose burning goal is to win the annual Shakespeare competition organized by the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California. Although each of these students has already been bitten by the theatre bug, they come from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Many of the participants in the competition have grown up against a background of violence, drugs, and poverty. Some are determined to use their school drama program as a way of escaping the influence of local gangs. Others find the drama department a safe place where they can shine and be accepted as part of a team.
  • Galvin and Melvin are African American twin brothers whose mother and grandmother were murdered by their father. The twins (who are now being raised by an aunt and uncle) are taking turns performing as Othello.
  • A former bully who was encouraged to join his school's drama club, Tosh turned his life around through theatre and started to achieve higher grades.
  • "Taco" is a young Latino from East Los Angeles who was kicked out of his local school for being a gangbanger.  After studying and performing Shakespeare, he now aspires to become a psychologist.
  • Tommy is a redheaded clown whose parents were former Neo-Nazi skinheads. His passion for video games has been replaced by a passion for performing.
  • Nicole is a young woman whose family lives below the poverty level in the small desert community of Hesperia, California.
One of the proud participants in Shakespeare High

During the year the documentary was shot, student groups competed using scenes they had developed from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Othello. The only scenery they are allowed to use during the competition is four chairs.

At various stages in the film, the program's participants have a chance to meet with established Hollywood stars (Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer, Richard Dreyfuss, and Mare Winningham) who are alumni of the DTASC competition. Shakespeare High is peppered with an impressive roster of facts about the importance of arts programs in the schools that have been provided by the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.

In his Director's statement, filmmaker Alex Rotaru explains that:
"Growing up in Communist Romania, my love of the arts was the one thing which allowed me to show up, study, and eventually excel in school. Even when my surroundings seemed hopeless, I found endless hope and inspiration in theater, music, literature, and film. I was especially affected by the works of William Shakespeare, to which I was exposed at a very early age by my parents: Maria, an actress, and Eugen, a playwright. Many parents in their generation used exposure to the arts to insulate their children (teenagers in the dreaded Communist Eighties) against the intellectually oppressive environment of the time, and to stimulate the unimpeded growth of our imagination and self-worth. When I came to the United States on a college scholarship a few years after the fall of Communism in 1989, I began noticing that the same principle applied here, even though the challenges thrown in the path of teens growing up in the U.S. are essentially different and extremely diverse."
Director Alex Rotaru at the Tribeca Film Festival
"The passion for the arts and education survived my various transformations and eventually carried over to filmmaking. It first took shape in PBS P.O.V.’s The Hobart Shakespeareans, which I co-authored with my mentor, documentary giant Mel Stuart; then in They Came To Play, a film about the Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition (which, I’m glad to say, was very well received here in New York and elsewhere) and in Kids With Cameras, which shows children on the autism spectrum using filmmaking and theatre arts to connect and communicate with the world (this film was recently selected by the Department of State to represent U.S. values abroad in its American Documentary Showcase). With Shakespeare High, the cycle is complete, on what I pray the audiences will agree is a strong, upbeat note, despite the current budgetary climate which has arts education up against a wall and denied funding. I can only hope that the simple lessons of our film will be used by parents, educators and -- why not? -- legislators, empowering other teens to become, in their turn, part of 'the happy few' since this kind of achievement is indeed accessible to everyone."
Tosh uses his rubbery face  to great comic effect

It's hard to compare Shakespeare High to documentaries about individual students participating in school competitions (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Whiz Kids) because there is a level of hyperactivity that is hard to tame when so many teams of teens are competing. My one criticism of the film is that it never shows a single team perform a single scene to completion.

However, I have no doubt that Shakespeare High will become a powerful teaching tool to be used with politicians who think of the as an elitist activity unworthy of government funding. Here's the trailer:

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During my high school years I was fortunate to get student discount tickets for a 1961 production of Hamlet (starring Donald Madden) and a 1963 production of The Taming of the Shrew (starring Nan Martin). With so many students in Shakespeare High studying Othello, I started to think about all the new course materials that are at their fingertips.

In 1997, choreographer Lar Lubovitch created a full-length version of Othello. This 60-second spot for the Joffrey Ballet's 2009 production of is guaranteed to spark the interest of any teenager.

The Great Performances: Dance in America telecast of Lubovitch's Othello from the San Francisco Ballet (starring Desmond Richardson and Yuan Yuan Tan) is now available in its entirety on YouTube.

Today, there are numerous DVDs of both Shakespeare's play and its operatic adaptation available. However, Giuseppe Verdi was not the first composer to be inspired by Shakespeare's work.

Gioachino Rossini's opera, Otello, was first performed in Naples on December 4, 1816.  The opera subsequently had its American premiere in New York on February 7, 1826.  Although four major recordings of Rossini's Otello exist, the opera's 1999 recording (starring Bruce Ford and Elizabeth Futral) features a happy ending to the story!

How can that be? Rossini was noted for his adaptability and willingness to take music written for a failed opera and insert it into a later piece.

As one listens to the "Opera in 10 Minutes" condensation of Rossini's Otello, it's easy to hear musical phrases that appear in La Cenerentola (the composer's adaptation of Cinderella which had its world premiere on January 25, 1817 in Rome (barely seven weeks after the world premiere of Otello). The following video clip also details variations in the plot from Shakespeare's original.

As one watches the above video clip, one can compare Rossini's style to the operas written by Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. Listen to the following clip of tenor Rockwell performing Rodrigo's aria ("Che ascolto! Ah come mai non senti?" ) in a 1988 performance of Otello and you'll also get a sense of the vocal ornamentation used by coloratura singers.

When Verdi's Otello premiered on February 5, 1887 at La Scala, his writing had developed into a much more dramatic style than Rossini's. The following video clips demonstrate how Verdi's music is able to enhance the text and propel Shakespeare's drama forward.

First, is a clip of the Act I love duet between Otello (Jon Vickers) and Desdemona (Mirella Freni) taken from the 1974 film directed by Roger Benamou and conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Next is the Act II duet between Otello (Placido Domingo) and Iago (Sherrill Milnes) recorded in 1979 during a telecast Live From the Metropolitan Opera.

In the following clip, the powerful finale to Act III features Placido Domingo, Barbara Frittoli, Leo Nucci, and the chorus from La Scala (in a performance dating from December 2001)

Finally, Mirella Freni sings Desdemona's Willow Song and Ave Maria in a 1976 La Scala performance conducted by Carlos Kleiber.

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It's always interesting to note some of the differences between the theatrical and operatic approaches to staging the tragedy subtitled The Moor of Venice.
  • In Shakespeare's version, the Moor is usually performed by an actor with a baritone. In both Rossini's and Verdi's operas, the title character is sung by a tenor.
  • Depending on their vocal health, tenors who learn Verdi's Otello (Giovanni Martinelli, Mario del Monaco, James McCracken, Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo) may sing the role in productions around the world for a period of 10 to 25 years. Few opera companies will plan to produce Otello unless they have a star tenor and cover under contract.
  • Because Verdi's opera includes a sizable chorus, any production of Otello requires a huge financial investment in costumes and scenery.
  • Because Verdi's opera is regarded as one of the composer's masterpieces, no one fucks with the score.
  • By contrast, because Rossini's Otello requires two top-level coloratura tenors, it is rarely performed outside of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy. However, the San Francisco Opera did staged Rossini's Otello in 2004 with a cast headed by Chris Merritt, Cecilia Gasdia, Craig Estep, and Bruce Ford (as Rodrigo).
  • In order to make a production of Othello more relevant to a modern audience, a stage director may make cuts in the text or interpolate some of his ideas into a new production.
Poster art for the Metropolitan Opera's Otello
designed and directed by Franco Zeffilrelli

Since moving to San Francisco in July 1972, I've seen three separate productions of Verdi's Otello performed at the War Memorial Opera House.
John Gunter's set for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Otello

My experiences seeing Shakespeare's play onstage have been far less consistent.
This week the Marin Theatre Company staged an abbreviated version of Othello with a cast of nine actors. Certain cuts and changes had been made in script and style that, for the most part worked well in condensing Shakespeare's tragedy down to an acceptable length for a modern audience. As director Jasson Minadakis notes:
"I was curious about giving women a much more even world to play in. Desdemona has made a choice to be a wife first. Whatever else she decides to be, this has been her choice, it hasn't been her lot. Instead of the triumph of Desdemona standing up to the Senate (a room full of men) crying 'I did this on my own,' she's now standing up in a room of men and women, all of Venice, saying 'I made this choice to marry Othello, to be this person.' I wanted the women to be able to fight back. Normally Aemilia runs in and Desdemona is dead and there is a lot of wailing and trying to stay out of reach of Othello. Now we have Desdemona's bodyguard, Aemilia, coming in with rapier and buckler. I don't like women to die gracefully in Shakespeare."
Mairin Lee and Aldo Billingslea in Othello (Photo by: 
"The women are all wearing weapons, except Desdemona.  Everybody is going to be fighting in this show.  Bianca is a member of the Cypriot army. Aemilia is a member of the Venetian army. One of the key differences in how we're approaching the military aspect of this play is that there are no insignia, no stripes and bars. It is a mercenary army. Everyone talks about this being Shakespeare's most domestic tragedy -- which is a lovely thought -- but it's a domestic tragedy that happens entirely inside a military camp.  You're never at Othello's home. You are always in a military camp once you leave Venice."
This may well be true, but the lack of a larger public to witness Desdemona's humiliation by Othello diluted the scope of her shaming. Similarly, when Othello suffered an attack of epilepsy, I detected no sarcastic reference to "the Lion of Venice" from Iago.

One of the blessings of MTC's production is the chance to experience Shakespeare's tragedy in the intimate confines of its 225-seat Boyer Theatre. Not only does this put the audience much closer to the action, it saves the actors from having to project on the scale needed to fill a 1,500-seat auditorium.

Craig Marker (Iago) and Aldo Billingslea (Othello)

This also allows the audience to appreciate the insidiousness of Iago's slander at closer range. Aldo Billingslea gives a towering performance in the title role, with Craig Marker working beside him as a fair-haired, handsome Iago whose bitterness is palpable. Nicholas Pelczar scores strongly as a buffoonish Roderigo.

Although Mairin Lee's Desdemona captured the character's loyalty, purity, and confusion at Othello's mood swings, I found myself more impressed with Liz Sklar's portrayal of Aemilia. Rinabeth Apostol, Dan Hiatt, and Khris Lewin played a variety of supporting roles.

While acknowledging the donors who had made his production of Othello possible, Minadakis gave a special pre-performance shout out to the National Endowment for the Arts, whose generous support will allow nearly 1,000 local students to attend a live performance of Shakespeare's tragedy. It would be wonderful if their study guides included some of the material from Dr. Alan J. Cohen's article entitled The Neuropsychiatric Syndrome of a Psychomotor Seizure Disorder in Shakespeare's Othello: The Moor of Venice.

It will also be interesting to see if students attending MTC's Othello production become as enthusiastic as the aspiring actor in Shakespeare High who giddily rapped:
"His name is Othello,
He's a really cool fellow.
He likes to go to battle
And he loves green Jell-O!"

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