Play 2: Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)(Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival)

2009 June 6
by admin

Before we left on this trip, Ken (my father-in-law) offered me his GPS. I declined saying something about “we got our maps already from GoogleMaps” but thanked him for the offer anyway.

I love technology, but I hate the GPS. Or, better reframed: I didn’t like what the GPS represented. See, I still like the idea of books and looking up information in volumes that contain physical pages. And, I like the idea of finding the point of departure and the point of arrival and looking at a map and tracing the route. Sure, I’ll use a website map such as GoogleMaps to aid in the process, but in the end, I’ll still have an overall picture of where I’m going and something tangible to point my finger at.

The GPS seemed more like having a website write a paper for you: you just plug in the goal and presto! a product in which you had little power over and had little control of any of the variables. And honestly, to me, that just sucks the joy out of life. Besides, I’d head enough stories of where the happy GPS either gave erroneous directions that led people into a driveway that was really a lake or, the thing simply wasn’t useful anywhere with farmland (e.g. Indiana and Ohio). The GPS just seemed to be a little gadget that really was for people in big cities and big cars.

So the next morning, when Donna offered her GPS for us to use in our Lancaster excursion, I reluctantly said “Sure” to Donna (mostly because neither of us–Lori or me–knew the area that well).
Our primary stop today was President James Buchanan’s Wheatland estate and this was a trip especially for the now “All-Things-US-Presidents” son, Colin. Colin, like many children, get into obsessions. Fueled by a viewing of Night at the Museum, Colin just loved the character of Teddy Roosevelt and has been on a three-month exploration of all the Presidents. So as we travel this summer, we’re making it a point to find those places that Presidents have lived and if you are in Pennsylvania, there’s really only one US President that is native to the state: Buchanan.

Apparently Buchanan doesn’t have the best reputation. Remember, he was the guy in office when the Civil War broke out (an inevitable happening no matter who was in office). But most historians and history books place the blame for the war on Buchanan because many felt that James could have done more (or, as some say, “do something”).  In fact, one of Colin’s US Presidents books says “Buchanan became a pathetic spectator as events in the country spun out of control.” So, it was going to be interesting to see how the folk in custody of Buchanan’s Wheatland (and his reputation) were going to tell the story of Buchanan in a different light.

The GPS got us to his home with no problem (damn thing) and we got out umbrellas and made the dash to the visitor’s center (a smaller house on the estate). It was an interesting tour through the house and instead of telling you everything, I’ll cut to the punchline: Buchanan was actually the tallest President (he was six foot five) and he believed that the Federal government should not get involved in the State’s right to govern. The Confederate States were the ones who pushed the nation into war against itself and after Lincoln was elected, Buchanan got a lot of stuff done. (At least that’s what I remember from the tour). It was a nice tour and time and Colin enjoyed himself and if you are in the Lancaster area, the Wheatland tour is worth the hour or so.

After driving around Lancaster for a bit and trying to find what house Lori lived in for a year or so as a child, we ate lunch at the Park City Mall and eventually made our way back to home base in Mt. Joy. Center Valley, according to my GoogleMap, was about an hour and 40 minutes away, so as relatives came for pizza, I had to do the “Hi-Bye” to Lori’s Aunt Janet and Uncle Bill. I did ask, for some reason, Donna if I could borrow the GPS (as I had found it helpful in Lancaster that afternoon) and she said “Sure” and I punched in the address and started northeast.

I found myself staring at the thing for most of the trip and the talking directions was a nice break from the long stretches of Pennsylvania road. Most of all, I looked at the “Arrival Time” in the bottom right hand corner; a time that would get later by 10 minutes because of the small town stoplights and the slower moving trucks on Highway222. At one point, 222 seemed to bypass a lot of the stoplights of a stretch of town, but the GPS didn’t recognize the new road and I decided to follow the screen than the newer sign that was before me. I did get to DeSales University in plenty of time (15 minutes before the start of the show), but like traveling to any new destination, the thought of being late for the past hour was getting a bit unnerving. Which is probably something to keep in mind: Don’t Panic, you’re going forward and eventually you’ll get there probably on time.

It was a cautious crowd, or that’s the vibe I picked up on as I took my seat in the front row of the smaller, maybe 200-seat theater with audience on three sides of the stage. I hadn’t decided on this performance until a week ago when I looking for a “Complete Works” became more difficult than I had anticipated. I figured it was still a popular show and that several smaller, summer theaters would be producing it. I also had made a decision to not repeat a venue twice, but now that I was in Pennsylvania and there was a production less than two hours away, I made an exception to my rule and ordered the tickets online for this performance (which, by the way, isn’t always a pleasant user experience–ordering tickets online–but that’s another post).

So, here I was: at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and here I was in the front row (slobbering distance from the actors) and by the time I sat down, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like tonight as much as I liked last night. See, unlike a Shakespeare play which there are very few good video recordings, I only have known this play by the original troupe, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s DVD of a Vancouver taping with Reid and Austin and Adam. This is a DVD that I show my students and it’s a play that I really like. Now I’d be faced with an updated version done by people I didn’t know or trust. And so, I chanted my little mantra for this summer: Soak in what you see now and don’t compare with other performances. You are not a critic, you are an audience member.

Right before the opening announcements, an older couple was seated to my left and one of the people who had a “Volunteer” name badge on, moved toward the stage with a clip board and began to give announcements. I immediately realized that this was their way to start the show and immediately looked around to see if I could find the “Adam” character (one of the actors who sat among the audience until it was his turn to give some historical background on the Bard)…couldn’t spot him

The opening sequence seemed tight and it took awhile for the audience to warm up to the production. From what I understand about live comedy, you gauge the material by audience reaction and the laughs were “somewhat” until the Shakespeare’s Comedies section. It took me awhile to get used to these three completely different people saying the lines that I was used to on the RSC version. More current material was added to make the production relevant to the audience and there were obvious local concerns woven into the performance. But still, there was an apparent reserve to this crowd and I think I found out why during intermission.

For me, I did want them–Chris Faith, Christopher Patrick Mullen and Shawn Fagan –to succeed and win the audience over. I had heard this discussed on the RSC podcast about this interplay with audiences and even which crowds were better than others (according what day of the week it was). Perhaps the most challenging audience was the opening day audience when VIPs from major sponsors would be in attendance along with other official-looking people. And as the first part of the show unwound through the Romeo and Juliet scene it became apparent that this was indeed an opening night crowd and this crowd was a bit more “important” than the usual crowd. (And I say “important” only because sometimes there are people who give generously and the usual perk is complementary tickets to the shows and good seats. These are the patrons of the theater and, though perhaps not the mainstream audience, are the folks who keep the show going).
After the intermission, I decided to say “Hey” to the older couple to my left as a way to make up for not saying much to the people at last night’s performance. The older woman didn’t look pleased with the performance as I asked if she came to this festival much.

“Yes,” she said. “My husband was one of the founders of this festival.” She motioned to the man to her left. She went on to inform me that she didn’t know why the Church had to be so accepting of homosexuality and that this production was more racy that when it was performed a couple of years back. She also called over the house manager (I think it was, and apparently the older couple were VIPs because the house manager calmly explained with the actors mispronounced he older woman’s husband’s name).

I think the homosexual reference came when Fagan playing Juliet came over to our side of the stage and was making some reference to some nicely dressed women sitting right behind us. Then, he leaned on my knees and said “What are you doing after the play? Oh, you look like a young John Kerry” which I though was pretty funny, mostly because I’ve been told that before…the John Kerry part, that is. DeSales University is a Catholic university and I’m wondering if all Catholic universities were still recovering from the heat that Notre Dame was taking over inviting President Obama to speak at commencement a couple of weeks ago.

All of this started to come together as the second part began with the Hamlet reduction: This was an opening night crowd at a Catholic university with a lot of VIPs and these three guys were performing something that really demands a lot of timing and reliance on each other for cues. I’m not making any excuses for them, but Faith, Mullen and Fagan did a pretty good job adjusting to the audience while pushing some content that would probably not make the audience laugh out loud. For instance, the Othello rap is just a fun piece and it seems that the audience would eventually clap to the beat and sort of motion along with the players. Not this crowd. We smiled. The Comedies portion is done as a reader’s theater in the original script, but in this version, it was performed as sort of a puppet show (with faces of celebrities on tongue depressors). The piling on of characters and what they represent reached the ridiculous level and, finally, the audience (perhaps carried on by the younger people in the crowd) caved and started to trust the actors. Like I mentioned before, the second act with the reduction of Hamlet was a more reactive crowd and I think people left with more than a smile on their faces.

Or perhaps it was the champagne that was offered to us as we walked out of the theater to toast the opening night performance of Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Either way, I think it would have been interesting to see how different things would have played out on another day with a different audience.

One of the things that struck me after I did a quick review via uterli and I turned on the car and the GPS and drove out of the parking lot is that this audience knew the actors and the knew this festival. Though this was the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, it was also a community festival with a history. People in the audience knew one another and people in the audience knew of the references to other past festivals that the actors (and director) cleverly included for the audience. In a way, I realized that though I was a part of the audience, I was still an outsider: in the beginning stages of a trip to dozens of places where there is already a relationship between the cast and the audience. I felt a little sad about this. Not only because I’m not a part of that relationship (much like when you are the new kid in a new school you’re trying to break into some of the social circles), but because I don’t have that back in my hometown of Goshen. We don’t have a Shakespearean festival or Shakespeare in the Park currently. I already miss what do not have, but hope to appreciate that vibe throughout the summer.

I ignored the GPS’ advice of heading back through all of those stop lights and instead followed the clearly marked signs before me for 222 that would eventually reconnect me with the original road. At one point I looked over at the car beside me who seemed unsure where they were going (that slow down thing that we do when we are unsure of where we are). And then I saw the GPS and I’m sure the driver and passenger were a bit concerned as I was earlier that evening if the physical sign should override the virtual one in the GPS. I could just hear that “R-Calc-U-Lating” impatient tone from their GPS. Eventually I sped on ahead and they turned off and heading toward the GPS-direct route. I turned on the Mamma Mia soundtrack and would be back in Mt. Joy in just over 70 minutes.

We left Saturday for another stop in Pennsylvania, in Chambersburg where Lori’s other grandmother lives. Both Lori and I ran some of the hills in the area as we’re both running in a race in San Francisco in late July and most people know that Northern Indiana is not known for its change in topography. Before we left though, Uncle Jay cooked me one of the best omelets I have ever tasted and we were piled full of containers of various deserts that were baked, and served over that the past three days. We made our way over to I-81 and the trip really took a half an afternoon and we visited and ate and slept at her grandmother’s apartment. We were out the door by 6 a.m. Sunday and enjoyed a fairly uneventful trip home. We did stop at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential home in Fremont, Ohio (about seven miles off the turnpike) to look around. We decided that we should come back another day so we could take the tour and all. The grounds of this Presidential home was a bit more celebrated than the one of Buchanan, at least that’s what I felt.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 August 7
    Shawn Fagan permalink

    So what are the chances that the audience member I picked out to flirt with (as JULIET, for the record, making it an entirely heterosexual moment in the context of the play) would be undertaking a project like this.

    Amazing coincidence. And amazing project. Just took a quick glance around here, but I see you’ve seen some of my favorite actors (a bunch are working at Tahoe Shakes this summer) and one of my favorite companies ever (American Players Theatre, where I spent a couple of seasons).

    Anyway, hop you’re having a fantastic summer, and thanks for fitting Complete Works into your plans.

    Shawn Fagan

  2. 2009 August 7
    admin permalink


    Thanks for the comment and I did like the “Complete Works” a lot…and I thought of it again as I returned to PSF last month.

    In regard to seeing other actors/venues you know: I’ve gotten that comment from other actors also.Ithink we as audience forget that actors have lives too and that-perhaps like moving through the leagues in MLB-those actors play in other places with other actors. It’s something I’ve never thought of until this summer.

    Anyway, APT was wonderful and the people there were equally as talented.

    Good luck in your upcoming gigs.

    Chris (currently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

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