This weekend, my wife and I piled the kids into the ol’ mini-van and trundled on down to the McHenry, IL Veteran’s Memorial Park to see a bit of Shakespearean theater.
Our purpose was to see the 7:00pm showing of a humorously abridged version of his great works.
I had seen this type of production before, done with rare wit and intelligence, and quite humorously. Having grown up right next door to the matchless, Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespearean Festival (and having graduated from its host university), I have become acquainted with the full-length, period-correct versions of “Will’s plays”, including Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, and so many others. During part of the illustrious history of the summer festival, my appreciation of Shakespeare evolved from youthful disdain, to curiosity, to outright admiration and awe. Being able to briefly and unexpectedly catch a ride home from church one day in the personal vehicle of Fred C. Adams, the founder and now-retired producer of the festival, was one of the conversational highlights of my academic life at SUU.
So, we figured this would be a great, local way to introduce our budding young home schooled children to the tales of The Bard.
We took our seats in the open air theater surrounding the park’s gazebo and waited as the small band of actors prepared their costumes and sets. It looked like a pretty nice little operation for community theater standards, maybe in its second or third year. The two youthful actors were complemented by an older gentleman, probably in his mid-forties, and assisted by three or four stagehands and technicians.
The play began with what otherwise might have been a rather dry mini-lecture on Shakespeare by the older gentleman, but peppered with a healthy dose of good humor and wit, as I had expected. After all, they had a lot of material to get through, so it’s best to warm up the audience with some laughs so they’ll stick around for more. There were a few line stumbles here and there, but having been in several high school and community productions myself, I knew this was to be expected.
About 5 minutes into the opening dialogue, we started into Shakespeare’s actual material, beginning with Romeo and Juliet.
Things began to go downhill.
The first couple of crude jokes weren’t that bad. Just some minor potty humor at the level of a fifth grader. Okay, well, this is a community production, so we’ll cut some slack on the originality scale. My kids, who know we are “going all counter-culture” and trying to raise them to be well-spoken and intelligent, also know potty humor isn’t tolerated at home. They looked at me as I rolled my eyes to express my disdain…and my hope that it would turn for the better.
But, as the mini-play went on, the jokes traveled lower and lower until they had crossed the waistline. There were lots of “loins” jokes accompanied by healthy doses of crotch grabbing and kicking, and gratuitous plays on the phrase “…but, love!” (get it? butt-love? yeah…)
At least the two young men playing Romeo and Juliet used the “hand cover” technique when “kissing” in the death scene. (And, yes, I do know that Shakespeare used male actors to portray women due to 15th century English prohibitions of women actors, perplexingly at the behest of the Catholic Church for which even the indirect portrayal of a homosexual act might have raised more alarm than a heterosexual one…but I digress). That was still “gross” according to my kids, who are still at the age where they don’t even like it when Mom and Dad kiss.
Next, the actors gave a short treatment of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest tragedies, written during the Quentin Tarantino period of his early career in which he indulged in quite a bit of blood and gore. The setting for this Cliff’s Notes version was a Julia Child’s-style cooking show, complete with severed hands, references to “finger-licking good”, and some grotesque mentions of the rape of Lavinia, for which the antagonists are executed by slit throats (in this portrayal, pouring into a large bowl of pie-filling mix). All of this is graphically portrayed by the “actors” in a way that might have caused even our more youthful Shakespeare to blush.
Then, on to Othello. Let’s just say that the NAACP would have issued a new resolution condemning any further productions by this little band of “artists”, if one is to judge it by the racial stereotypes inserted into the rap version of Othello (the protagonist which, in the original play, was a Moor). The effect might have been a bit more complete had they taken a moment to smear black shoe polish on their faces, but that might have been too hard to wash off in time for the next sketch.
Finally, we moved on to the comedies, all 17 condensed into one using either the Marx Brothers (or was it the Three Stooges? I couldn’t tell) as the comedic device. This is really where it broke down for our family of youngsters. Each of the first three jokes were too X-Rated for me to reprint here, but suffice it to say my kids’ eyes got REALLY wide and big question marks seemed to appear over their heads simultaneously asking “Did he say what I think he just said?” and “Why are Mom and Dad letting us watch this?”
I’m a bit ashamed to admit that the turning point for me, the one that at least broke me out of my shocked stupor at all the brazen, crude, and violent sexual vulgarity spewing from the gazebo, was when one of the young actors described the rape of a female character (I had lost track of which play at this point) by “green, ghoulish monsters bearing a curious resemblance to members of today’s conservative Tea Party” (which, as the astute observer might note, is particularly ironic in light of their previous racist, summary “execution” of Othello.)
My trance broke. My legs shot me off the bench my family sat on.
“Come on, kids,” I whispered not so quietly, dragging them away from the scene of this ultimate exercise in Shakespearean tragedy, “Let’s go play in the park. We’ll take you to see a real Shakespearean play when we go to Utah next summer for the family reunion.”