Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Comedy of Excellence

I have a confession to make. It's a pretty serious one for a self-described literature nerd like myself. I... well, I'll just come out and say it: I don't really enjoy Shakespeare's comedies.

Oh, this is not at all a knock against the Bard. I love (most of) his tragedies, admire his histories, and like half of the romances. I haven't come across many works, in any medium, that contain the philosophical angst of Hamlet, the sense of wonderment in The Tempest, the rousing excitement of the Prince Hal saga, or the devastation of King Lear.

But the comedies? Not so much. I enjoyed watching the movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, and got a kick out of some of the dialog in Taming of the Shrew, but for the most part, his comedies were strictly required reading for me, nothing more. There's just wasn't... enough there. In comparison with the more serious works, his characters felt flat. The pacing was weaker, with the action held captive during supposedly witty exchanges. They didn't transcend the moment and speak to the human spirit. All of which might have easily been forgiven, were it not for one final factor: I didn't think they were funny.

Now, like most people, when I read Shakespeare, I need help. His language is different enough from ours that a good chunk of vocabulary is likely to be obsolete, and because we were raised on another continent hundreds of years in the future, we will miss many references that were timely for his audience. Just think of trying to show "This Is Spinal Tap," say, to a crowd in 1650 Bombay. And so, we usually read Shakespeare with a crutch: either on the same page or as endnotes, an editor provides explanations for parts that are likely to confuse us. This is always a delicate balancing act: provide too much and you risk drowning the reader in a mass of words that distract from the poetry; provide to little and you leave him helpless to understand what's happening.

And that really is the main problem: humor that needs to be explained is never funny. I love The Far Side, but as soon as someone says, "I don't get it," you know that hope is lost. Even if you are able to point out the joke, it will never be as funny as if they had found it on their own. Humor described is humor denied.

And so, when I learned that Shady Shakespeare was doing two comedies this summer, I confess to mixed feelings. I like the Bard and get a kick out of this troupe and their venue, but I wasn't exactly relishing the prospect of sitting through a comedy. They weren't even the two I liked!

I arrived early in the park and enjoyed a nice picnic dinner (cold pizza, juicy heirloom tomato, ripe peach) under a shady tree, near a sprawling and boisterous Muslim cookout. I walked over to the amphitheater about half an hour before The Comedy of Errors was scheduled to start at seven. As I expected, it was already filling up, but I was able to snag a spot along the edge just three rows back.

My optimism began to rise as I took in the stage and perused the program. Shady Shakespeare had absorbed one of the cardinal rules of our universe: everything is better if you add pirates. The director had chosen to move the play's setting from the Italian coast to the Caribbean, and as a result the stage was filled with parrots, pirates, barrels, and other such objects. The best part is, it actually works. The play calls for a port city, a certain atmosphere of danger, storms, and thriving commerce, all of which could be provided in Tortuga as well as Ephesus. Actors dressed as merchantmen, Old World governors, swashbucklers, even voodoun and Chinese traders.

Things got off to a great start when the three buccaneers - who would form a sort of Greek chorus through the play - came to the front and led use "merefolk" in a series of sea shanties, including classics like "Blow the Man Down" and "Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest." This was great fun, as well as a good idea. Shady Shakespeare gets a lot of children in these shows, and increasing participation is always smart. Additionally, I just really like having excuses to sing out loud. I was pleasantly surprised by how well I remembered these old pirate songs, some of which I haven't heard for years since I heard them on old Disney material.

And when the play proper began, I was even more delighted to discover that - gasp - I was enjoying the play! And it wasn't just the atmosphere of the performance... I was genuinely amused by what was going on. What was happening?

As I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Other than the director's notes, there was no explanation or glossary about what was happening. As I directly experienced the play, I either got the jokes and laughed, or didn't and waited patiently for the next one. There was no opportunity for my type-A brain to say, "Wait, what?" and interrupt the action for several minutes as I flipped through endnotes.

A lot of credit has to go to the actors as well. Performing Shakespeare is always a challenge, and they did a great job: not only did they play their roles well, but they also worked very hard to provide non-verbal clues as to what was being verbally communicated. The play was staged with a great deal of mime, play-acting, broad gestures, and expressive speaking. You might not catch a particular term, but it's hard to miss the meaning when someone grabs a body part or feigns a kiss.

Furthermore, I was reminded once again about how PHYSICAL plays are. The Comedy of Errors is renowned for being the most slapstick-heavy of Shakespeare's plays, but even apart from the regular swatting and beating that takes place, the production makes it clear that there's at least as much humor to be had in double-takes, pratfalls, funny accents, and audible expressions of extreme emotion as there are in, you know, the words. Of course this makes perfect sense, and these are all things that are very hard to capture on the printed page. Think of, say, reading the script for "Austin Powers" as opposed to seeing the movie. You'll still chuckle at a few of the jokes, but so much of the humor is impossible to capture in black and white letters.

The more I reflected on it, the more I realized that I owed Shakespeare an apology. I just hadn't given the comedies a chance. I've only read them, rarely seen them. It should have tipped me off that the rare one I had seen (albeit in movie form) was thereafter deemed "one of the good ones."

It does give me some food for thought. It's interesting that the more serious works hold up so much better in purely textual form than the comedies. I've never seen King Lear performed, and in all honesty am not sure that I want to, but the raw power and despair on the page are very compelling. I wonder if this is because of human nature, that the physical is somehow more closely bound to the humorous, and the mind is more closely bound to the serious. Or it may be related to my own experiences. I'm much more likely to read dramatic novels than light humor, so perhaps I'm more primed to absorb certain messages from printed material.

There were just a few things that I wish Shady Shakespeare had done differently. The sound cues felt a bit overly broad - did we really need to hear a slide whistle every time someone fell down? I'm a little torn on this, since, again, there were a lot of children in the audience, and having that multi-media delivery may have helped convey the comedy better. The other complaint is more with the source material (hey, William's been dead for centuries, so what's he going to do about it?) - the slapstick really is too much for me. I was never a bit fan of Loony Toons or other entertainment that relies on you laughing when someone hurts someone else, so it was a bit hard to enjoy watching someone get slapped upside the head repeatedly. On the other hand, most of the non-slapstick physical humor was excellent, including an amazing over-the-top scene where Antipholous's (sp?) "wife" seduces him on the street.

Some people might complain about how contrived the play is. It has not one, but TWO sets of identical twins, each of which unhelpfully shares the same name, and the play ends with a deus-ex-machina that would make even "Romeo & Juliet" embarrassed. Me, I have a nearly infinite capacity to forgive the implausible if it's funny. It's not like "Family Guy" is a paragon of perfectly logical thought.

With my love of Shakespeare's comedies newly revived, I'm now looking forward to catching "Twelfth Night" this weekend. The Bard marches on!


  1. Is Google becoming the new Microsoft?

  2. Heh, a bit of a non-sequitur of a question! Maybe I should do a blog post on it. My short answer is "No, but..."

    Because of its increasing size and power, Google does have an effect similar to that of Microsoft. When they get behind a technology, like Python or Ajax, it immediately becomes much more important than if some random company used it. And when they enter into a new market, like online word processing or photo sharing, it has an immediate impact that might include discouraging competitors from entering the field.

    That being said, the lasting impression left by Microsoft is a company that wants to dominate the market and crush the opposition. They have a sordid history of buying out competitors, and destroying those who stood in their way. Unlike Google, which seeks out the best technology and applies it, Microsoft has one of the most severe cases of "Not Invented Here" syndrome in the universe. Sure, people (well, at least developers) might grumble about Google "pushing" Python through App Engine, but Python is an open-source language with a respected history that anyone can use. There's no comparison between that and Microsoft's power grab with J++ deliberately trying to strangle Java in the cradle.

    I think that, at the end of the day, Microsoft wants to have 100% of the market, whatever that market might be, while Google wants to grow that market as much as they can and take a slice. For example, Microsoft would rather have 100% of a 5 billion dollar sector, while Google would rather have 25% of a 50 billion dollar sector. They just haven't shown the same desire to crush the opposition or force people to use their services; they just make darn good software and try to bring more people on board.

    This is an excellent strategy so long as their software is great. When it sucks, as with the beta version of iGoogle, then the people they brought into the market will flock to their competitors.