The Summer of Our (Dis)Content: Part Two
If We Shadows Have Offended
By Maureen Lee Lenker
Last week, we established why Summer Shakespeare has such a foothold in Los Angeles, digging into how and why a playwright who lived hundreds of years ago can still be such a draw for audiences with Hollywood at their fingertips.
For any devotee of the Bard, this annual cornucopia of productions should be a boon. But the fact remains that though the quantity of Summer Shakespeare is profuse, the quality can often be lacking.
Audiences wander into and find productions that completely ignore or forsake the text’s original intentions, actors who can’t enunciate or don’t understand their words, or some terrible combination of the two. That’s not to be said there isn’t also stellar Shakespeare – this summer’s production of The Tempest from the Independent Shakespeare Company takes one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works, with its lengthy poetical interludes and complex politics, and delivers a high energy, funny, romantic romp.
The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’s production of Twelfth Night falls somewhere between the extremes of greatness and failure. It’s mildly diverting with solid performances throughout, but it never manages to rouse its audience from the poetical stupor Shakespeare can sway them into. Theatricum Botanicum’s largely over-acted Romeo and Juliet, resetting the play in modern Jerusalem, takes a broad jump towards contemporary relevance through vaulting ambition, which o’er leaps itself.
These three shows present us with the wide range of viewing fodder and beg the question, what should we, as a city, expect from the Bard?
For artistic director David Melville, he’s always looking to defy expectations. “I think there’s a slightly unfair connotation to Shakespeare in the Park that it’s going to be a kind of men running around in tights and things, and it’s going to be bargain basement rough stuff,” he says.
Given that the Independent Shakespeare Company performs in Griffith Park for free where park visitors can stumble upon productions, they run the risk of being mistaken for Robin Hood’s Merry Men and actively combat that stereotype.
“I think sometimes people will come here from a Renaissance Faire expecting that it’s just an annex of that,” says Melville. “That there will be people wandering around flame throwing and we’ll be drinking glasses of mead and shouting ‘Huzzah’ all the time. Which is great for the people that love that, but it doesn’t reach everybody, and the trick is to try to reach everybody.”
For Melville, this comes down to a “focus on entertaining the audience, not pandering to them, but giving them something that will constantly surprise and delight them.” The ISC relies entirely on donations, which they don’t solicit from audiences until after the show, so that their work is always held accountable to audiences.
But there’s a question beyond what we should expect from the Bard. That question is, how should we process our disappointment on those occasions that Shakespeare’s productions come up short. This question virulently divides artists.
Director Kenneth Saberton declares, “Audiences shouldn’t ever settle for mediocre theater, period. What’s the point? Life’s too short.” For Saberton, the definition of mediocrity comes down to whether or not a performance captures an audience’s attention for its duration. “It’s got to be relevant to the people watching it,” he says. “It’s got to move them, it’s got to excite them, it’s got to hold them. It’s got to do all those things. It it doesn’t, it doesn’t deserve to exist.”
Artistic directors Melville, Ben Donenberg (Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles), and Ellen Geer (Theatricum Botanicum) share a more generous perspective, as well as an optimistic view of the power of Shakespeare’s themes and language. “I think there’s room for every kind of thing as long as it’s being done,” says Geer. “Because even if you’re doing it badly, the stories will ride through.”
Melville echoes this notion that there is always something to be gleaned from even the poorest of productions: “I’ve seen so many Hamlets and some of them are bad and some of them are good, but I’ve never seen a Hamlet where I didn’t get something out of it, so maybe something is better than nothing.”
Donenberg responds in kind, saying, “Each production is a rediscovery of Shakespeare’s plays because that particular group of people in that time and place have never assembled. If people are interested in investigating Shakespeare and there’s an audience for it, all the power to them. The more the merrier.”
Donenberg notes that each institution should evaluate its production values based only on whether they’re meeting and improving on their individual company aims. “It’s up to the institution putting it on to ask if it lived up to the standards they’re shooting for,” he says. “I think the real danger with all of these companies is when they stop asking these questions.”
All three artistic directors note that it would be a disservice to dismiss Shakespeare productions outright based on over-saturation or a wariness of mediocrity. “When you go down the road of evaluating whether art should exist based on quantitative reasoning,” says Donenberg, “you’re really demonstrating that you don’t understand the function and the purpose of an artist in society.”
Geer and Melville stress the enrichment Shakespeare adds to our lives as a reason for always returning to him as an artist and audience member. Geer says she took refuge in Shakespeare from a young age, with her father, actor Will Geer, telling her, “Ellen, whenever you’re depressed, you just read a little of this and you’ll never have to see a psychiatrist.”
For Melville, it extends beyond that to historical and political resonance. “We need it because it’s a connection with our past, which so handily delineates how we behave as human beings,” he says. “I think it’s amazing to be able to reach back into the past and say we’ve always been like this. Donald Trump might be scaring you right now, but just have a look at Richard III.”
Audience members and critics can debate the merits of a particular Shakespeare production, choosing to embrace or deride the performances and directing choices. Ultimately though, it’s not about that so much as it is the deeper learning experience you derive from interacting with Shakespeare’s themes, characters, and preoccupations in a live theatrical setting.
Melville sums it up, saying, “People have always said through the centuries that you can learn so much morally through Shakespeare, but also, there’s something spiritual about it as well. It’s not religious, it’s more about communing with what happens when we are the greatest we can be, and Shakespeare was the greatest writer, and it’s important to stay in touch with that.”