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An impressive roster of playwrights redo the Bard in modern-day English for the Play On! Festival
Director and dramaturg Lue Morgan Douthit didn't grow up loving the Bard. Her grandparents took her to Shakespeare summer festivals from the time she was 7, but "it wasn't anything that stuck with me," she says. Even during her 12 years earning several academic degrees in theatre, she never took a single Shakespeare class. Yet her extensive experience with emerging playwrights made her the perfect person to oversee Play On!, Oregon Shakespeare Festival's ambitious initiative to commission 36 American dramatists to translate the Bard's plays into "contemporary modern English." Through June 30, New York audiences can see readings of all 39 plays from this project at Classic Stage Company in the East Village.
Although Douthit admits that, initially, Play On! "was just an assignment," she says the experience has changed her life and her opinion of the Bard. "Shakespeare fires on every cylinder you can imagine, more than we even thought."
The Play On! Festival presents the works in the order Douthit believes they were written, starting with Amelia Roper's take on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, purportedly written between 1589 and 1593, and finishing with Tim Slover's translation of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which Shakespeare reportedly completed in 1614, two years before his death at age 51. Seeing the plays this way, Douthit says, uncovers some intriguing connections. For example, Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream (see Jeff Whitty's version on June 8) shortly after Romeo and Juliet (catch Hansol Jung's take on June 7), which suggests that he was satirizing his own tragedy in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene in his comedy.
The Play On! presentations feature up to a dozen actors reciting the text without costumes, props or elaborate physical activity. "Four hundred years ago, people went to hear a play; now we go to see one," notes Douthit, who wants the festival's approach to conjure the original experience. "I also want to reclaim public play readings as a legitimate component of new play development." Since these are all works in progress, audience reaction can help dramatists hone their scripts.
Play On! was launched as a pilot program in 2012 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Douthit had served for many years as the director of literary development and dramaturgy, focusing on new plays. A handful of adaptations had already been written and workshopped when benefactor David Hitz awarded a grant to commission translations for all 39 of them. Douthit selected the playwrights, who are predominantly women and/or people of color, and asked them to name the plays they wanted to do. "Ninety percent of them got their first or second choice," she says. However, she had trouble finding anyone to agree to take on Romeo and Juliet since it's so iconic. It was one of three unassigned plays left when Hansol Jung came on, but she was undaunted by the challenge.
"I wanted to use the project to get intimate with Shakespeare," says the playwright. "And RJ is pretty solid structurally -- it works almost as a musical. Coming out of it I have to say, I learned so much about structure, use of humor and character building."
Douthit paired each playwright with a dramaturg, for research and/or hand-holding, and gave some basic instructions. Do no harm -- keep the story and the characters, make no cuts and respect the rigor of Shakespeare's language.
Migdalia Cruz, who tackled Richard III (June 2) and Macbeth (June 24), says the guidelines evolved over time. "I think that Lue understood that she had to give us some space in order to be creative," Cruz says. "Otherwise, what was the point of asking playwrights? Why not just use Shakespeare scholars?"
Cruz focused on updating archaic phrases in the dialogue. For example, in Act IV, Scene 3 of the original text of Macbeth, Macduff says to Malcolm:
Let us rather
Hold fast the mortal sword and, like good men
Bestride our downfall'n birthdom.
Cruz translated this to:
Prince Malcolm, let's
Hold fast our deadly swords, and like good men
Protect our fallen homeland.
Cruz left the famous speeches alone because she didn't think they needed clarification. "Once you get into a monologue like, 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' the emotion and heightened sense of urgency are there to make the language clear," she explains
According to Cruz, her most radical change was enhancing the witches' roles, adding lines for them at the beginning and end, and recasting the story so that "they are introducing the scenes and are powerful women controlling the world, as opposed to weird sisters just making predictions. I also wanted to give them a sexier language because I envision them as women of color who frighten people because of their sexuality."
Most of the playwrights doing comedies went further with their adaptations, as did Hansol Jung with Romeo and Juliet, which starts off funny before turning tragic. Jung notes that the comedies often riff on words in a way that "is lost to us," so major tweaks are necessary.
Jung dove deeply into what is supposed to be a punny opening exchange, which plays on the arcane word choler -- coals, collier, collars. She substituted variations on suck:
Sampson: Gregory I swear, man, we can't be no one's suckers.
Gregory: Depends on what we're sucking.
Sampson: Then you suck on, but they'll succumb to my sword.
Gregory: Or you'll suck in your last breath in a hangman's noose.
Jung also updated the Bard's bawdy humor throughout. "It was very satisfying to write intricate dick jokes in blank verse," she says.
Her riskiest adjustment comes in Act III, Scene 1. In the original text, Tybalt tells Romeo:
Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain.
Jung changed "villain" into a homophobic slur.
"I had a workshop where the room of collaborators felt a thirst for a word that is more inflammatory," Jung explains. "I have kept it in for now and am excited to see how that works on the audience. My aim was to completely update the prose bits into contemporary language, and to tinker with the verse so you can understand what they are saying at hearing speed without having a Shakespearean education. But I also wanted to do this job in a way where you can't tell what is mine and what is Shakespeare's."
Indeed, it's surprising to realize that when Capulet declares, "Give me my long sword, ho," that's all Shakespeare.
Douthit's flexibility with alterations only went so far. Brighde Mullins initially did a total contemporary rewrite of King John (June 8). Kim Kardashian even made an appearance. "It was hilarious," Douthit admits. "We all laughed, and then I said, 'Now do the real job.' I am not asking that they bring Shakespeare to them. I'm asking them to go to Shakespeare and work with him."
There have been critics of this project, and it remains to be seen what the general reaction will be to these translations. Yet there's no denying that some theatre lovers, Douthit included, appreciate having help understanding Shakespeare's language. Douthit's biggest issue with the original plays is that she always gets "the gist" of what's happening on stage, but there's no opportunity to linger on phrases or read annotations, which would lead to a deeper understanding. A good example of the auditory challenge, Douthit says, is in Act IV, Scene 3 of King Lear, when the royal, stripped of his power and dignity, says he feels sorry for the "poor, naked wretches" of his kingdom. He then utters this line: "Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel…" In Marcus Gardley's King Lear (June 22), the title character says, "Oh when I was King, I should have done more for you. It would do you good, men who live in luxury, to walk in the shoes of the poor and downtrodden."
What Douthit didn't grasp from, "Take physic, pomp" but gleaned from Gardley's translation is that "the tragedy of Lear is he will never get to take charge again to fix the things he's learned need fixing," she explains. "This is great drama to me: A character is realizing something right in front of me as if for the first time. Because the language is less of an obstacle, I can better appreciate the plays, and understand the flaws of these people not as characters but as human beings."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for multiple Play On! readings. Go here and search for Play On to see all events available in the festival.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Nael Nacer in the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of Migdalia Cruz's Macbeth translation in 2018. Photo courtesy of the theatre.