In an age when the appeal of the classical arts can sometimes appear to have dimmed, compared to the popularity of the 21st century sparkle of dazzling special effects and digital technologies, I find it especially gratifying to know that the best and the brightest hope for the preservation of what is timeless in our humanity still lives and breathes in the performance arts. A generous gift from my sister presented me with the opportunity to attend the 15th season of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, which included two extraordinary performances by the current company of players, of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “Titus Andronicus.”
As the deadline for the end of the season approached, I had to scramble a bit to arrange to attend each of the two performances, but as is sometimes the case, all the particulars of both logistics and serendipity combined to bring the fullness of the experience to the fore. The weather was perfect on both days of each performance, so I was able to walk from the train to the theater building along the “Avenue of the Arts,” and it made the trip both times a very pleasant and relaxing experience getting to and from the theater.
The first performance was “Titus Andronicus,” thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and it is a fairly grim story that was told in the play, about revenge and its consequences. There are all varieties of intrigue and violence depicted in the story, which apparently was popular in Elizabethan England. In the Philadelphia performance I attended, Aaron Cromie directed the company of players in a remarkably inventive approach, utilizing puppets and silhouettes of characters to suggest scene changes and events that take place outside of the main performance stage. As the play opened, we see the actors adorning themselves in their costume pieces, each one suggesting the role they were about to assume. There was a sense of the original flavor of Shakespearean performance in the air that never left you. It was a bit unsettling at first to see humans interacting with and reacting to the puppets, but after a short time, they became accepted as characters by the audience, even when the puppeteer was visible on stage. I found myself cringing many times during the performance at the suggestions of violence, and there were audible gasps from the audience at such times that demonstrated the effectiveness of the puppet characters.
During several scenes, particularly gruesome acts of violence are committed against puppets, and even though the audience was well aware of this, you still felt a cringe when the damage was revealed. At several points, the human actors were very realistically bloodied and bleeding in front of us. The final scene is so violent that I found myself recoiling at the depiction by such talented actors, who very convincingly did away with each other. It was a tragic series of events convincingly and expertly executed by the players that left me emotionally drained, but successfully entertained. Thankfully, the company of players took a bow after the play ended that reassured us that they were still intact. Brilliant in its design and execution, “Titus Andronicus,” was captivating and satisfying.
The second offering for the fifteenth season at the Shakespeare Theatre was “Twelfth Night,” directed by Carmen Khan, which according to the program is a “…meditation on romantic delusion, intertwined with a sense of poignancy at life’s impermanence,” which results in “…an irresistable, poignant symphony of miscommunication, mis-conception and non-comprehension, all fueled by the longing of romantic desire.” There were moments of downright silliness, laughable rants by drunken characters, and plenty of laughs for the audience, along with the unfolding romantic delusion and confusion, which thankfully is resolved by the end of the play.
Once again, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s company of players dazzled and delighted the audience with a beautiful rendering of Shakespeare’s melancholy treatment of life’s paradoxical circumstances. Each of the players brought Shakespeare’s intentions to life and expertly responded to the script’s challenges and opportunities. The style of the costumes and the setting was intended to evoke the 1930’s style and “the jazz age,” and it was enormously appealing in its originality and flair. The production was over three hours long with a fifteen minute intermission, but I found myself wishing it wasn’t over at the end. It swept the audience off its feet and the time seemed to fly all along the way. Again, the production was so satisfying and engaging, that the audience was on its feet at the conclusion, shouting praise for a most delightful performance.
For further information about future productions, visit phillyshakespeare.org.
The inner turmoil provoked by my pressing need to get my work moving, to resolve the issues surrounding the diversion of my attention to pressing personal circumstances, and to find some degree of balance and harmony within me, is evident as I gaze around my workspace and see literally dozens of loose ends, trails of reading materials, writing, articles and books, reference materials and correspondence, and emails and ideas are all over the place.
On top of the pile is a book by Stephen Greenblatt, called “Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare,” which I am reading in preparation for attending a production of “Twelfth Night,” at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, one of the few more pleasant diversions on a long list of diversions. Will drew deeply on his “inner life,” according to Greenblatt, frequently writing with a “strong current of ironic laughter” at the thought of himself and his parents, “laying claim to a higher status,” than what might have reasonably been assigned to them in his lifetime. Comparing some of Shakespeare’s poetry to the ideas expressed in his romantic comedies, Greenblatt reiterates how both forms attend to the narratives they contain, which are “never explicit, but never completely out of view.” This could be an apt description of my own circumstance presently, as they resemble those of the great Elizabethan poet, who “can no longer understand how it will all work out.”
Below that are several issues of the Atlantic Monthly, and back issues of Scientific American, which I can never seem to keep up with, and which are frequently in just such an arrangement on my desk. Sometimes they get pretty ragged by the time I finish with them from carrying them everywhere I go. In the compartment stand on the left is a fascinating cornucopia of articles, reports, clippings from my recent reading, various other magazines which are on the secondary list, also back from several months, printouts from webpages I’ve visited and my “current” folder where I try to accumulate the bits and pieces from my current writing and research. It tends lately to be anything but “current.” I have considered changing the title of it to, “Last time I looked,” but the optimist in me resists the idea.
Slightly out of view in that section is another recent “bargain book,” called “Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius, which I became interested in after seeing the film, “Gladiator,” starring Russell Crowe as the general turned slave turned gladiator Claudius Maximus. Richard Harris played the aging Marcus so well, that when I read the book now I can’t help but think of his portrayal of the character as the one I am reading about. Combined with all of these “known” items, or at least the more immediate of them, is a collection of mail, various publications and notebooks, all mostly just waiting for their turn in the maelstrom of chaos.
There is more clutter in my head lately than anything I have been able to construct or accumulate on my desk, but my desktop gives a fair indication of what’s going on in my head at the moment.
It becomes problematical when I try to distill some order from the chaos sometimes, but generally it is also illuminating in an important way when I contemplate the many facets of my intellectual and emotional chaos. In isolation, they don’t always have the same power as they do when they are a component of an avalanche. My empathetic nature has always been active in me, but I haven’t always been able to make good use of it. As a child, it led me to feel apart from others as no one seemed to know how to react to it, and they frequently reacted fearfully, not understanding this aspect of me. Clearly, I didn’t understand it either.
Adults would frequently comment on how pleasant a child I was; they saw me as kind and considerate of my peers, even at an early age, but no one seemed to recognize the cause–not even me. As I grew, my insecurity and the lack of an environment conducive to promoting this nature, I fear, stifled its development and led to a great deal of confusion on my part when it would surface abruptly. As the years passed, I was only able to make miniscule progress in understanding myself, often shining momentarily on a particular occasion, only to lose momentum just when I seemed to be enjoying some inadvertent advantage.
When I finally experienced the liberation of leaving home, no longer inhibited by the expectations of others, I had such a powerful opening into my inner world, that it nearly ruined me. It was like a bomb had gone off inside my whole life. Had it not been for my daily routines as a soldier in the military at the time, I might have been completely overwhelmed by it. It wasn’t until I arrived overseas in Germany that I finally had the opportunity to explore my empathetic nature at length, to understand it better, and to see how it was influencing my experience in the world. What I saw when I looked inside myself was like a train wreck, or a broken staircase in an abandoned house in the image above. It was very much like the image above. But before long, I began to glean some important insights into my circumstances and make deliberate use of them, showing me that I could benefit from opening to this nature within me.
It was like emerging from a long, dark hallway after the longest night of my life. I began to recognize how out of sync this nature seemed to place me relative to the rest of the world I knew, and to this day, even as I feel more synchronized with my inner nature than I ever have before, I still experience excruciating emotional pain when I am unable to connect with others who clearly have the same inclinations, but are struggling as I did to understand or to uncover their understanding as I did for so many years. Even as I gain in strength and understanding of my own nature, I often encounter such enormous resistance from others. It is rare to encounter anyone who seems to recognize the extraordinary quality of empathy without shrouding it in social pressures, or who isn’t afraid to embrace this aspect of our human nature without some mitigation of the sort that effectively disables it.
Empathy will be the subject I will be exploring in the weeks to come. The notion is central to my life right now, and I need to express my heart and soul more than ever. I hope my readers will bear with me while I do.