Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! at Toronto Fringe (a review)

Zip & Shakes make Hamlet approachable for kids

Zip & Shakes make Hamlet approachable for kids

Your dad just died. Your mom married your uncle, who stole your crown. Your girlfriend went bonkers. And your best friends are trying to kill you.

You thought being an 8-year-old was tough.

Who in their right minds would try to turn Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a puppet show for kids? Shakey-Shake and Friends would, offering  Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! at Toronto FringeKids! 2015.

Before you even step into the theatre, you know that the producers understand the challenge they’ve set for themselves.

“We’re doing the whole thing (deaths and all), but in a light-hearted way,” reads a sign outside the theatre. “Everyone who dies gets a very silly ghost sheet and continue to comment on the action! (It’s not too scary.)”

And as far as I’m concerned, they deliver on their promise. From the moment the lights come up to the second they finally drop, the puppeteers put everything they have into entertaining their audience.

Whether it’s one of the characters, or the erstwhile hosts Shakes and Zip (pictured above), somebody always steps forward to help the kids understand what’s going on. And they do it without ever coming across as teacher-y, or at least, not for very long without a heavy dose of silliness hard on its heels.

What does the “to be or not to be” speech mean? Why does Hamlet’s mom not clue in to what’s going on? It’s all explained, gently and sweetly, to the kids without ever being condescending.

And nicely, the cast knows that their audience extends well beyond the 6- to 10-year-olds. Throughout the play, there are jokes for all ages and references from popular events and news items from last week, last year and last century.

This appears to be a very good decision, because about 85% of the capacity premiere crowd was well beyond puberty.

Having spent some time as a puppeteer, I didn’t think the puppetry technique was particularly solid, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one who cared. It didn’t seem to stop the wall-to-wall smiles and laughter that held the audience from start to finish.

I thought all of the performances were quite strong, but the show was absolutely stolen—if laughter volume is any indication—by Shakes/Polonius. Even in death, this character managed laughs that literally stopped the show.

Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! is easily the most entertaining hour I have spent in years.

[Review first appeared in Mooney on Theatre.]

Macbeth is the new Game of Thrones?

Who shall achieve the throne?

Who shall achieve the throne?

I hate writer Erin Whitney for little fault of her own aside from the gaping wound that she has rent into my soul with the opening lines of her Huffington Post piece announcing the release of the latest trailer for Macbeth, as performed by Michael Fassbender.

“Imagine Game of Thrones with Michael Fassbender speaking Shakespearean. Then you’ve got Macbeth.”

Her approach is entirely justified for a generation(s) that did not grow up on the works of William Shakespeare​ but instead find themselves immersed in the worlds of George RR Martin and the like.

But it is in pointing out this sad fact—sad to me, at least—that Ms. Whitney has earned my enmity. With all due respect to Mr. Martin, it is his works that should be defined in Shakespearean terms, even if only from a chronological perspective (taste is personal).

[I would also argue that a better parallel is made with either the British or American versions of House of Cards, but that is beside the point.]

Frank & Claire Underwood are Lord and Lady Macbeth

Frank & Claire Underwood are Lord and Lady Macbeth

Please do not take my condemnation and enmity personally, Ms. Whitney. It is not entirely your fault that you tripped this social and literary landmine.

If, however, I might make one recommendation: Get thee to a Shakespearean festival!

* * * * * * * * * * *

stratfordfestival

Some North American Shakespearean festivals (not a comprehensive list):

Stratford Festival (Stratford, ON)

Bard on the Beach (Vancouver, BC)

Shakespeare by the Sea (Halifax, NS)

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot (New York, NY)

Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC)

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (Chicago, IL)

Shakespeare for all time (more comprehensive list with links)

Much Review About Nothing

http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-reviews/modern-times/review-much-ado-about-nothing-2013

There is a certain degree of irony in this review of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing which is just that; the reviewer complains at length about the bare-bones nature of the production and the lack of interpretation over mere presentation (i.e., modern dress without modern sensibilities).

I seriously doubt the reviewer would have had quite the same issues with the setting simplicity if this had been a staged production rather than a filmed production, and it is important to remember that Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage, not the screen.

As to modern interpretation and sensibilities, I largely think this is impossible without a complete rewrite of the play into another project all-together and most particularly in the case of the comedies. Take, for example, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You as a modern interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.

The tragedies so better lend themselves to simple modern reinvention by simply changing the uniforms of the many and varied soldiery or political figures. As an example, I give you House of Cards, which to me is a retelling of Richard III with a soupcon of Othello for flavour.

And let’s face it, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the more frivolous and playful of Shakespeare’s comedies…it is play for the sake of play. It offers no deep meaning but instead centres on the silliness of love; a topic that will remain universal for all time.

Which brings me to the biggest challenge I have with this review.

The reviewer seems to assume that Whedon meant for this to be anything more than a lark…but Whedon being Whedon, a lark that he filmed with very good friends who happen to be very good actors.

I know as little as the reviewer, but I have every reason to believe the choice of modern dress was simply the reality of not having racks of Renaissance costumes lying around the house. The choice of black & white cinematography was perhaps an homage to the screwball comedies of yesteryear, of which this play is truly one and possibly the most yester of yesteryears.

As you can probably tell, I liked the movie…I had few expectations other than laughter and those were met. I also liked Kenneth Branagh’s version, which really only differed in multiple sets, colour film and period costume.

 

Adapt or die

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Recently, I’ve read a couple of screenplays based on novels, and with this albeit low number of examples, let me start by saying thank goodness I have yet to find a book I wish to adapt for screen. The process, it would seem, is tedious and fraught with perils.

Odds are, especially if you are just starting out as a writer, you’ve chosen to adapt a specific book because you love it.

You love the way it is written. You love the story it tells. You love the characters. You may even love the paper on which it’s printed or its cover art.

Congratulations. You’re doomed.

I say this not to be mean but to point out that the book was written as a book for very specific reasons. The format and structure of a novel is incredibly different from that of a film.

At its simplest, you have the space in a novel to indulge yourself in narrative and character introspection. More simply put, you can describe a setting or reaction in such detail that if linearly translated to a screenplay, it would result in ten minutes of film focused exclusively on waves rolling across a beach or on the angle of an eyebrow raised over the left eye of your heroine.

Even simpler, novels are verbal, ironically, while films are visual.

And unless you’re planning on running a voice over throughout your movie—please say no—I have no idea what your characters are thinking. I can try to guess from their facial expressions, but it is a guess and will have as much to do with how easy it was to find a parking place in the megaplex as it does with the actor’s talent.

The novel could afford to be 500 or 1000 pages. Your screenplay can’t.

I love Kenneth Branagh. I love Shakespeare. Branagh did a very linear interpretation of Hamlet for film. I was bored. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet? Held my attention and was entertaining. [Compare the two “alas, poor Yorick” scenes linked here.]

The difference? A very sharp editorial knife.

So, I am going to ask you to take the thing you love and hack it. Cut it with broad strokes and wild abandon. This is no place for finesse.

This isn’t about trimming paragraphs. It is about slashing subplots or entire chapters. It is about burning away all of the decorative niceties until you reach the essence that turns your crank.

Be cruel. Be ruthless. Be honest.

Take that Sistine Chapel and reduce it to the handful of bricks that make you sweaty; that keep you coming back time after time.

It will feel like murder. In some ways, it is. But it’s murder for the greater good, because once you’ve hit that core, you can begin to rebuild. You can start to rescue some of the elements you set aside earlier or add new ones that are truly unique to your vision.

What is that core? I don’t know. That’s for you to decide.

Maybe it was the setting. Perhaps it was the relationship between two characters.

Whatever it is, find it and make that your story. That is what you love. That is why you keep coming back for more.

Honour that and you’ll have a screenplay worth turning into a movie.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission. I’m adaptable that way.)

Onward creative spirits

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Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.Henry V III, i, 1

In his thrilling speech to his troops (see excerpt below), who stood exhausted before the walls of Harfleur, Henry V challenges them to try yet again to take the city, that now is not the time to back off. Keep moving forward.

As it was expressed dramatically about war, so it is with Art and with life itself. It is vital that once you gain some momentum, you should do everything in your power to maintain that momentum.

Several years ago, I took up running. I hated it. I hated every living moment of it. But I was trying to improve my health and I knew that it was important. And so every couple days, when I would head out for my run, I had but one thought in my mind: keep moving forward. I knew that if I stopped, I might never run again.

As it was with running, so it is with writing. I write because I desire to, but also because I fear that if I stop, there is every chance that other aspects of life will creep in and keep me from it. My fear of losing writing is bigger than my fear of writing crap.

If I’m working on a screenplay and hit a creative sticking point, I try to move around it rather than dwell on it and lose the forward momentum. Sometimes, moving around it means writing another scene elsewhere in the same screenplay, but more often, it means jumping to another screenwriting project, developing another blog post or riffing wildly on Twitter or Facebook. My poor keyboard owes me nothing.

Even when I am simply writing some notes for a scene yet to be written, I do not allow the “correct” word choice to block me from writing…I simply add a placeholder where the right word should be and keep the thoughts flowing onto the page. The placeholder can be a blank underline (fill it in later) or a close enough word so I will know what I meant later, or it can be the word “shit”. It doesn’t matter.

It’s the artistic version of Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by a force. An object in motion remains in motion, and at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

In this case, the object in question is me and/or my creative spirit.

In fact, forward movement doesn’t even have to be the same art form. I often use photography to keep me going. But you can also read a book, see a movie, sit in a park. Do whatever it takes to keep the creative parts of your brain and soul moving forward.

But how will I ever get anything done if I keep flitting back and forth from distraction to distraction?

Unless you’re specifically working to a deadline for your creative project—and there will be times when this is true—creativity is about the process, not the product.

Most artists (and we are all artists) live and act to create, not to have created.

And even if you are working to deadline, forcing your way through a challenge will likely result in a work that requires significantly more reworking than if you had simply let the creative spirit take you where it would. Thus, I don’t know that you’ve really gained much by pushing on something that isn’t coming naturally.

The natural direction of the universe is forward. You have it in you to continually move forward. Why would you give that up?

 

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height.
– Henry V III, i, 3-17

(Image used without permission.)