Spring 2014 in Review: Comedy of Errors, audio and text

The spring semester is winding down, and it’s time for me to recap IF’s recent work. February’s reading of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Deborah Parker, was a complete success: great performances, great adaptation, great audience. February’s snowpocalypse and subsequent school cancelations forced us to move the show back by two weeks, however, and also forced us to push back the performance date for Steve Burch’s A Tiger’s Heart, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy. IF ran several cold read workshops to assist with the adaptation process, but there just wasn’t enough time in this snow-laden semester to bring the material to a satisfying performance. We decided to postpone A Tiger’s Heart to a future semester, TBA. Blame the snow!


Many of IF’s regular readers are graduating this semester. Congrats especially to Joey Gamble, Adella Smith, and Amber Smith, who have worked with IF for the past four years. Needless to say, these seniors were swamped this April, so we tried a new format for our staged reading of Comedy of Errors: no rehearsals, complete improvisation. The script was cut, cast, and distributed before the show, but wasn’t put on its feet until the night of April 18th. It proved to be an excellent experiment by my lights, especially for a comedy concerned with error. The audience’s laughter seemed to come not only from Shakespeare’s humor but also from the enthusiasm of the actors as they tackled the material, making mistakes but sticking doggedly to the play in the process. It’s not an approach that would work for every play, but it’s something we may return to occasionally. You can hear the results here:

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, adapted by Nic Helms

And now, announcements! The fall 2014 season is still very much in flux. Right now I have my heart set on two shows: Shakespeare’s Richard III and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. More to come when I know things for certain.

Here are two Rude Mechanicals shows you can definitely put on your calendars: Julius Caesar, directed by Steve Burch, May 28-31 in Mars Spring Park; Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Mark Cobb, June 25-28 in Mars Spring Park.

As always, if you’re interested in being involved in IF or the Rude Mechs, reach out to us via blog, Facebook, or email and we’ll be sure to get you involved.


April 14th, Hudson Strode presents *Caesar Must Die*

April 14th, Hudson Strode present *Caesar Must Die*

Hudson Strode presents Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s *Caesar Must Die* (2012) on April 14th, 2014 at the Bama Theatre. The film is set in a prison in Rome, where inmates rehearse for a prison performance of Shakespeare’s *Julius Caesar.* The screening is free and open to the public.



Merchant of Vegas

Merchant of Venice
Royal Shakespeare Company
June 28, 2011, 7:15pm

Before the show began, the woman next to me (a British schoolteacher) leaned over and said, “We came because we heard it was controversial.” Her husband smiled dutifully.

Rupert Goold’s Merchant of Venice is set in a raucous Las Vegas, complete with card tables, bad suits, and gaudy lights. Launcelot Gobbo (Jamie Beamish) opens the show as an Elvis impersonator, complete with song and, uh-huh!, dance. Antonio (Scott Handy) and Bassanio (Richard Riddell) are what you’d expect: the one a glum businessman, the other a polished youth with just enough hair gel to suggest rakishness. It’s clear that Antonio loves Bassanio, and clear that Antonio is dismayed by Bassanio’s plans to gamble on a marriage with Portia (Susannah Fielding). Standard Merchant fare, plus Las Vegas.

Portia and Nerissa (Emily Plumtree), however, are anything but typical. The game of the three caskets is transformed into a game show, Destiny, hidden in the basement of one of Las Vegas’s buildings. Contestants appear in trumped up, false personas: Morocco the boxer, Arragon the matador, Bassanio as Hercules himself. Portia and Nerissa are also layers of ornament: while their actual accents are Southern (and thickly ridiculous), they put on the airs of dumb blondes during the show, which is projected on TV screens above the stage. I his climactic choice of the lead casket, Bassanio rails against ornament: his choice shuts down the show, and Portia reveals self-consciously strips away her own ornaments: the accent, the platform shoes, the blonde wig, even the false confidence. She’s still daddy’s little girl, even after his death.

I haven’t mentioned Patrick Stewart’s Shylock yet. Stewart reprises this role by emphasizing Shylock’s jewishness, blessing his daughter in Hebrew, contrasting his cool, businessman’s exterior with his reactionary religious intolerance, even wearing a kippah and a tallit during the courtroom scene, which is held in some dark, sanitized torture room of a prison. He is Patrick Stewart (with a full head of hair!) and both his intensity and his emotional control are astounding.

The prison scene, however, is where Stewart and Handy really shine. Merchant is a play of subtext: Antonio’s love for Bassanio, Portia’s desire to master Bassanio’s will, Shylock’s balance between humanity and stereotype. In this production, all the subtext becomes embodied during this scene, speaking out through gestures and glances rather than words. When Bassanio arrives, Antonio has been stripped to the waist in preparation for the knife: the two men embrace, and Bassanio grips Antonio’s flesh like a lover. Portia comes not because she wants to save Bassanio’s friend but because she intuits the nature of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship: she comes to observe, and saving Antonio is merely improvisation. Shylock holds the knife to Antonio’s breast, and Antonio quakes with such fear that Shylock complains to the police officer holding him still: it is only later in the scene, when Shylock puts a gun to Antonio’s head and Antonio does not flinch, that Shylock can say, happily, “I am content.”

Everyone gets what they want in this scene, and it destroys them. Shylock makes Antonio fear death and ultimately face it, becoming the monster Antonio so reviled and feared: Shylock’s only way to touch him; Antonio faces death for Bassanio’s sake, testifying to his love, but Portia trumps that testimony by saving him, saving her husband’s lover. And Portia sees what she came to see. The play does not end with jokes and happy reunions. It ends with the unadorned truth, the bare lead that Bassanio hazarded for. Everything is out: Antonio’s love, Gratiano’s pettiness, Jessica’s self-hatred, Portia’s self-fabrications. Life unadorned: it’s a controversial thing.

Mark Me

Staging Hamlet for Improbable Fictions posed a problem: how do you depict the ghost of Hamlet’s father?  Special effects often fall flat at this moment: various combinations of white sheets, eerie green lights, and zombie makeup.  And certainly, the special effects budget of an IF production totals about $0.00.  I trust our audiences to have a lot of imagination: our actors carry their scripts around onstage, after all, and it’s improbable (if not impossible) for an audience member to forget that theatricality unless they let themselves become invested in the show.  Even so, King Hamlet’s ghost needs to be a bit terrifying, and while I could have asked our Ghost (Steve Burch) to simply step onstage and “play dead,” letting the audience imagine the rest, terror needs to be more visceral.  The supernatural demands to walk the stage.

With that in mind, I set out to hack the opening act of Hamlet to bits.  Marcellus and Bernardo disappear from the text.  Instead, the play opens with the meeting of Hamlet (David Bolus) and Horatio (Amber Gibson).  Hamlet soon asks Horatio for a speech:  “We’ll have a speech straight: come, give us a taste of your quality; come, a passionate speech” (a line taken from Hamlet’s later dialogue to the First Player).  Hamlet leads Horatio over to a tape recorder; Horatio tentatively begins the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the 1st Quarto of Hamlet (known as the “bad quarto”).   When Horatio’s memory falters, Hamlet picks up the train of thought as a dialogue:

HAMLET records the speech on a tape-recorder.
To be, or not to be--
Aye, there's the point.
To Die, to sleep...
Is that all?
Aye, all.
No, to sleep, to dream--
Aye, mary, there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever retur'nd,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Whol'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tyrant's reign,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin--
Who would this endure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense,
Which makes us rather bear those evils we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Aye, that. O, this conscience makes cowards of us all.

Hamlet stops the recording, and Claudius strides onstage with his opening monologue.

In a later scene, Hamlet decides to listen to the recording.  However, the supernatural decides to step in.  The audio track below is what Hamlet hears from the tape recorder (sound design courtesy of the fantastic Jerrell Bowden).  During the performance, Hamlet cradled the tape recorder and carried it into the center aisle of Farrah Hall 214: the Ghost’s voice quite literally walked amidst the audience.

(click to listen >>>>)  (<<<< click to listen)


Since we didn’t get Hamlet’s responses on tape, I’ve included a portion of the script below.  You’ll probably want to open the audio file in a new tab.

Enter HAMLET. Hamlet listens to tape-recorder.
To be, or not to be--
Aye, there's the point.
To Die, to sleep...
Is that all?
Aye, all.
No, to sleep, to dream--
Aye, mary, there it goes,
For in that dream of death...
Mark me.
I will.
My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
Alas, poor ghost!
Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
Speak; I am bound to hear.
So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
I am thy father's spirit. List, list, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--
O God!
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
O my prophetic soul!
My uncle!
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,--
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once!
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.


*Love’s Labour’s Lost,* a recap.

To the cast and crew of Love’s Labour’s Lost: bravo!  It’s amazing just how well 400-year-old comedy ages.  I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard watching Shakespeare since…okay, maybe never.  And the show also received some major publicity: it showed up in the Crimson White (here), on the front page of UA’s website last week, and as the “picture of the week” on mybama.ua.edu.  Shakespeare’s cultural capital?

Be sure to check out Joey Gamble’s review of the show on Vanishing Sights.

ShakesFilm: Branagh’s *Love’s Labour’s Lost*

Join us on Sunday, January 31st at 7:00pm for Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 Love’s Labour’s Lost.  I have a feeling this film is worth seeing if only for Branagh’s mustache.  We’re screening the film in Morgan 301, UA campus. Free and open to the public.



Infinite Monkeys

It might be possible for an infinite number of monkeys, given an infinite amount of time and bananas, to peck out Shakespeare’s Hamlet on a few well-maintained typewriters.  Fortunately, Improbable Fictions does not require an infinite number of actors to stage a reading of Shakespeare’s most produced play.  In point of fact, we need only fourteen actors to complete this probability-defying feat.  If you’re interested in participating in a staged reading of Hamlet in late April (most likely Thursday, April 21), send an email to <nrhelms@crimson.ua.edu>.  Please briefly note your theatre experience (though none is required), your interest in particular roles, and any other skills Improbable Fictions should know about (singing, stage combat, ownership of a black box theatre, etc.).  The subject line of the email should read “Hamlet casting.”

A few good actors really are hard to find (and pin down), especially mid-semester, and thus Improbable Fiction’s shows tend to be cast not by audition but by directorial choice.  If we can find more actors than typewriters…I mean, more actors than roles, then there may be auditions.

Upcoming Events

This semester Improbable Fictions will present two staged readings and an informal film series.  Save those dates!  All events are free and open to the public.

Love’s Labour’s Lost
Thursday, March 10th, 7:30pm
Farrah Hall 214
April, date and location TBA
ShakesFilm Series
Sunday nights, Morgan 301, 7:00-10:00pm
Jan 23: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Jan 30: Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost
Feb 6: Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night
Feb 13: Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing
Feb 20: Pasonlini’s Oedipus the King
Feb 27: Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It
March 6: Cacoyannis’ Elektra
March 20: Delbert Mann’s 1958 Desire Under the Elms
March 27: Pasonlini’s Medea
April 3: Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight
April 10: Robert Wise’s 1949 The Set-Up
April 17: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead