Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Sonnets on Stage

Southwest Shakespeare Company has a way with combining the new and the old, the familiar and the fresh. They'll perform Shakespeare plays and they'll perform contemporary plays. They'll set the Shakespeare plays in their original settings, or in a more recent time period. It keeps things fluid. Their latest production pushes the fluidity even more.

"Shall I Compare Thee: The Sonnets," directed by Mary Coleman Way and Dathan B. Williams (who was also the playwright), combines various of Shakespeare's sonnets into a play. It's one of the cases in which you have very little idea going in about what you're going to see on stage. They said there would be music and dance, but I still had a lot of questions. I was imagining a small cast and more of a monologue style. 

What they came up with much more cohesive than what I was imagining. The cast included eight actors and three musicians. Not only was this a larger group than I'd expected, but it's also a large group for the small venue at Taliesin West. That theatre gives the opportunity to feel fully enveloped by the stage. There was a light framework of Shakespeare's biography to give a kind of context to each sonnet. So the actors switch in and out of speaking directly to the audience (when explaining various factoids) and performing the different roles within each sonnet. 

Some actors played Shakespeare himself at various ages: youth, adulthood, and maturity. They all played either the speakers or subjects of the sonnets. So the play was a constantly-changing kaleidoscope of sound and visuals and emotional beats. But it didn't feel convoluted. In fact, it was quite a delight. There was very little pressure in the watching as compared with a usual Shakespeare play. Normally, if it's a play you're not familiar with, you have to glance at plot or characters beforehand so that you'll be able to keep up with what's happening when you watch. Here, though, the "action" was simple. And if a particular few lines eluded you, no worries: that sonnet will be over soon and you'll move on to the next. 

Their musical explanation of a sonnet's construction deserves the limelight. It would be the delight of high school English students eager for a few minutes of a YouTube video to lighten the load of learning. In fact, the whole play had that sense of delight. Maybe it's because the actors were constantly moving in and out of breaking the fourth wall that there was greater awareness of their love of their craft. That plus the experimental nature of this play showcased the fun and whimsy of hamming it up to elevate dialogue and sequences. 

And we hit the more serious emotions, too, all the way from the opening sequence speaking of death to the closing "Shall I Compare Thee?" We walked away reminded of what a difference it makes to produce and consume art. "So long lives this and this gives life to thee." Art in the hands of performers with an audience becomes a tangible, living thing that outlasts the ages. It's quite a glorious thing to behold. 

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