Thursday, May 17, 2012

And for our next trick...

I'm pleased as punch with the way things have shaped up this season at Bad Quarto, and with two shows down, it's time to shift focus to those things that the scholars call para-performance materials. In the coming weeks, we'll be laying tracks for The Ballad of Dido original cast recording, and sending that out to our generous sponsors who helped make that show a reality. We'll also be working on finishing up the performance edition of The Merry Devil of Edmonton (no, we haven't forgotten about the project that started it all).

You can definitely expect some changes in operations here at Bad Quarto, too. We're brainstorming some ways we can make some of the best plays you've never heard of available to broader audiences, and I expect will be exploring electronic performance venues for our next project.

I will, of course, keep you all posted as the details emerge, and scripts and soundtracks become available. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On Playing Mercury

While we were workshopping The Ballad of Dido, the American Shakespeare Center was performing Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, one of our writer and director Tony Tambasco’s source materials. Being exposed to Marlowe’s play was a treat, and I found it fascinating to learn which elements Tony was specifically deviating from and which he was borrowing. 

Tony and Marlowe’s treatment of gods is markedly different. Having seen Marlowe’s play, I found myself appreciating more how Tony was using gods and mortals in his story-telling. In Marlowe’s play, the gods control the story. Jupiter, Venus, Juno, Cupid, and Mercury appear and re-appear throughout the play. Dido, and her love, are clearly under the control of Cupid. The power of the gods is undeniable. 

In The Ballad of Dido, the mortal characters are given greater agency: though many gods are talked about frequently, Mercury is the only divine figure that appears. The manner in which he does so further places the burden of their own actions on the humans. Mercury appears to Aeneas in a dream. Aeneas clearly believes the visitation is a true one, but Dido argues that “dreams are false shades of the gods’ will.” The script doesn’t give any other reasons to doubt Mercury’s appearance, but it also doesn’t present the visit as concrete reality.

We were able to find further opportunities to confuse the matter, due to the fact that I, a short redheaded female, was playing Lord Mercury. One day in rehearsal I said, “I’m going to try something crazy with this scene,” and proceeded to play Lord Mercury as though he were a twelve-year-old girl.

I can’t fully describe where this idea came from. Partially it was because the text made me think that Mercury was akin to Sportin’ Life and I thought it was a bad idea for me to attempt to play that. Thus I needed to find a different way into the role that would contain no flavor of that. Partially it was due to the fact that I was playing three male roles and was looking for a way to keep them separate and interesting. 

Tony approved the choice, feeling that it worked because Mercury was the only god and would therefore be the most successful by existing as far outside the time and place of the story as possible. After playing the scene I could clearly see in my mind what Mercury’s costume should be. Tony saw the same image.

I think there is something to be said about the fact that misogynistic lines such as “varium et mutabile semper femina” (a woman is always a variable and changeable thing - thanks Vergil) were being delivered by a character embodying a sexual trope - the older female dressed as a Catholic school girl. Because our society fetishizes the Catholic school girl, Mercury’s characterization enters of the world of fantasy. The two main results are that the audience is then able to question the reality of the scene, and the responsibility for Aeneas’ actions rests solely with Aeneas. 

Is it Mercury or is it Aeneas’ subconscious that appears in the dream? I’ll never tell.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Two Household friends...

I was trying to decide how to start talking about the "bad quarto" of Romeo and Juliet, when I finally decided that (like in Sound of Music) the beginning is a very good place to start.  The prologue of the "bad quarto" is a microcosm of the textual variances in the rest of the play.

So, instead of talking a bunch first, I'll get straight to the text. 
Here is the text from the quarto (edited only for spelling):

Two household Friends alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona, where we lay our Scene)
From civil broils broke into enmity,
Whose civil war makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed Lovers took their life:
Whose misadventures, piteous overthrows,
(Through the continuing of their Fathers strife,
And death-marked passage of their Parents rage)
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here we want we'll study to amend.

It's close, right?  So close.  And yet so far from the words of the prologue that we all know:
Two households both alike in dignity,
(In fair Verona where we lay our Scene)
From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed lovers, take their life:
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their Parents strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their Parents rage:
Which but their children's end naught could remove:
Is now the two hours traffic of our Stage.
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What hear shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
 With these two passages, one can start to see how Shakespeare's re-write process may have taken place.  In fact, the second version of the prologue is from the second quarto of Romeo and Juliet published only two years after the "first draft".  Based on these two passages, I like to think of the first quarto as a rough draft for everything that was to come.  In reading that first prologue out loud, it's very easy for me to see Shakespeare in a rehearsal for this new play listening to the actors speak the lines and taking notes on all the rewrites.  That first quarto prologue looks pretty great on the page, but once you begin to say it out loud (even without the second one in your head), the language is clunky.  It doesn't flow off the tongue the way most Shakespeare does.

To be very specific, let's look at just the first line: "Two household friends alike in dignity" versus "Two households both alike in dignity".  Why the word "friends"?  Shakespeare needed a word there to make the iambic pentameter work.  But the word "friends" seems like an odd choice.  He's about to write a play about two bitter enemies, but begins with the word "friends".  Is it possible that as the beginning of the sonnet, Shakespeare wasn't sure what sort of play he was writing and, once he figured it out at the end, didn't go back to revise before handing the script to the actors?  This question, and thousands of others like it, are the reason I love textual variance.  In changing a word, Shakespeare can change a whole character, or a whole play.

To sum up, the first quarto simply hasn't cooked enough.  Shakespeare, it seems, hadn't taken quite enough time to pick out all the right words yet, so what you've got with the entire text of the first quarto is a play that is so close to perfect and yet not quite there.