The First Folio, the defining collection of William Shakespeare’s best-known works, celebrated its 400th birthday last year. On Seattle-area stages this year, new plays, and new takes on the classics, probe the Bard’s continued relevance.
NWTheatre talked with artistic leaders about a few notable Shakespeare-inspired works taking stage. Their insight, along with a roundup of this season’s Shakespeare and “inspired-by” works around the Sound, is below.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
ArtsWest: Born With Teeth
The just-opened Born With Teeth, by Liz Duffy Adams, takes an eyebrow-raised look at the relationship between Shakespeare and his writer-contemporary Christopher Marlowe during a time of plague, paranoia in power, and deep and abiding distrust.
Answers below provided by Corinne Park-Buffelen, Relationship Manager at ArtsWest.
How does Born With Teeth approach or engage with Shakespeare?
The play is a two-hander featuring Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Post-Doctor Faustus and before The Globe, Marlowe and Shakespeare start out the play at very different levels of success and notoriety, and the audience gets to see how that changes over the course of the three years the play takes place. Born with Teeth allows the audience to see these two iconic historical figures from a different perspective.
Though the play is set in the backroom of a bar in the 1590s, there are some anachronistic design choices that allow the production an iconoclastic edge and punk sensibility.
Why this show, and why now?
Following ArtsWest’s mission to produce work that uses live theatre as a powerful agent of change, the company has a history of examining classic texts and classic characters through contemporary lenses. Our past productions of Death of a Salesman, Ghosts, and Saint Joan took these canonical works and made them relevant and accessible to today’s audiences.
While Born with Teeth is a contemporary play, it shares the spirit of looking at history from a new perspective. We loved Liz Duffy Adams’ take on these literary legends as two young men doing whatever it takes to make it as artists. The play is full of brilliant wordplay, intrigue, and sharp humor. Plus it’s queer historical fiction — how cool is that?
What keeps Shakespeare relevant for 2024 audiences?
His love for his characters — at their best and at their worst. They are complex, relatable, deplorable, foolish, beautiful, cunning, brilliant, and mad, and they allow us to reflect on our own complexities.
Born With Teeth is on stage now and performs at ArtsWest, in West Seattle, through February 25. Tickets here.
Seattle Shakespeare: The Bed Trick
There’s plenty about 400-year-old works we need not be beholden to. In this world premiere at Seattle Shakespeare Company, Keiko Green’s The Bed Trick digs into the past to look forward.
Answers below provided by the playwright, Keiko Green.
How does your new play approach or engage with Shakespeare?
Between Seattle Shakespeare Company and Wooden O alone, I believe I performed in a total of seven shows. I paid a lot of bills doing Shakespeare.
The last role I played at SSC before leaving for grad school was Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well. I remember talkbacks at student matinees, in which students (rightfully) had a lot of trouble getting past the idea of the protagonist of the story tricking someone to sleep with her. So when SSC and Interim Artistic Director Makaela Milburn asked if I had any ideas for a play that could be in conversation with Shakespeare, I jumped at the opportunity to tackle that most problematic of Shakespearean devices.
The main story deals with “the bed trick” in three different ways, via teenage women during their first few months of college. We have Harriet, who is an actress in rehearsals for All’s Well. We have Lulu, who contemplates dire lengths to catch her possibly cheating boyfriend. And we have Marianne, who, along with her parents, represents my version of a contemporary sequel to All’s Well.
This play doesn’t shy away from the fun and the sexiness of what the bed trick represents, but it’s more an exploration of how we get there and the consequences it might leave behind. As the play goes on, and the relationships and emotions get messier, sometimes characters might break into verse, sometimes they might speak to the audience in true Shakespearean fashion. The Bed Trick was written as a five-act play, like Shakespeare’s own, and we’re also engaging or fixing for a contemporary audience some structural issues that often don’t work in every Shakespearean play. It’s an homage and a rebellion and represents all of my complicated feelings about producing Shakespeare today.
[Editor’s note: Green’s observation, “I paid a lot of bills doing Shakespeare,” is a well-shared one. A collection of Dame Judi Dench’s seven decades of stage insight, scheduled for release this April, is titled ‘Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent‘.]
In an interview, you described this work as “Shakespeare in conversation with university consent culture.” Can you say more about that, and about finding inspiration in those themes?
I spent 2019-22 in my mid-30’s on a college campus, surrounded by college students who were wonderfully brilliant (and hormonal), but most of all had a really strong sense of justice and fairness. I admire and fear it, actually! The bed trick, as an idea, doesn’t leave room for much complexity for many young people because it feels so black and white in terms of whether it should be acceptable: the bed trick is just rape, so that is bad. So I became really interested in how young people now could make mistakes and find themselves accidentally falling into this idea of sexual manipulation that is actually quite universal — versions of the bed trick can be found in stories throughout time in nearly every culture. So how would that even work now? What would really happen?
You can view the interview, with Chance Theater, here.
What keeps Shakespeare relevant for 2024 audiences?
I don’t think every Shakespeare play is super relevant! And because I’ve performed in many of them, people think I know all the plays, but there are so many I don’t know, and it’s sometimes rare to find productions that aren’t a huge “take” on the play, or it’s just really stuffy and feels beyond me, and the language is already hard, but the production isn’t helping, and sometimes I can’t even follow the story because it’s my first time encountering it, and like WHO EVEN IS THAT CLOWN CHARACTER, and I end up feeling stupid, and I start to resent the play and Shakespeare and even the theatre for putting it on, and I think that’s how Shakespeare really fails.
But when a relationship or a piece of poetry or a circumstance gives words to a feeling you’ve felt in your gut, and you realize: “Oh wow, so many people have felt this way before me,” it can suddenly feel like you’re not alone. That it’s actually quite normal to be struggling with this thing that felt so vast and beyond you, that in fact kings and queens and peasants and prostitutes and warriors all have the capacity for beautiful thoughts and language, and actually aren’t we all just finding our unique paths towards some version of being happy? I feel like we can keep finding room for that.
What do you hope viewers walk away with?
My first goal is to entertain, so I hope that audiences leave with a little soreness from belly laughs, but also feeling (perhaps unexpectedly) moved. I hope young people feel seen and that older audience members are transported back to how impossible it sometimes felt to be a teenager. All of the characters are in transitional moments in their lives, and I think the play wants people to remember that being a human is ugly and messy and complicated and unbearable and hilarious, all at the same time. And we’re all just trying to do our best.
SSC’s previous Artistic Director, George Mount, mentioned the theme of forgiveness both during All’s Well rehearsals and the workshop for The Bed Trick, and that’s really stuck with me. Forgiveness is a huge part of the show — just not in the way you might expect.
The Bed Trick premieres at Seattle Shakespeare Company, at the Seattle Center, and runs March 20-April 7. Tickets here.
Red Curtain: A season of Shakespeare
With its full season of Shakespeare and inspired-by works, Marysville’s Red Curtain Foundation for the Arts wants to make the Bard accessible to new audiences, in both the show selection and with innovative design choices.
Answers below provided by Scott B. Randall, founder and Artistic Director of Red Curtain.
Why do an all-Shakespeare season?
My reasoning for guiding us into a season of Shakespeare was my experience with actors’ and audiences’ resistance to these texts. We could do a Shakespeare show in our season, but that felt too safe and wouldn’t immerse us in these plays, while a full season inspired by his works would challenge us to become knowledgeable about his work and how to present them to modern audiences.
We selected seven shows (our standard season) that would make use of three shows in the traditional language, and four plays inspired by Shakespeare’s work. Our Play Production Committee read nearly 60 plays, which included first-time readings of several of his plays, to choose the seven we would produce. We felt that these seven shows would allow our audiences a well-rounded journey through Shakespeare, and hopefully aid all of us in better understanding why these plays have survived for so long.
What keeps Shakespeare relevant for 2024 audiences?
Shakespeare wrote about the fundamentals of being human — life, death, love, war, betrayal, and redemption. These are stories that we all still live every day. The quality of his word selection and usage takes these everyday experiences and elevates them to epicness — don’t we all feel that our own lives are worthy of such greatness? — and the most important stories in our lives are those about our lives. We all want to imagine that we have greatness in us, and these tales allow us to exist in that greatness. The quality of his language invites us to live every moment to its greatest extent, and not just dwell in mediocrity.
What are your design inspirations for the season’s shows?
My inspiration for Something Rotten was The Globe Theatre in London. We scaled down that structure to fit on our stage, and used a color palette reminiscent of mid-20th century musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, to give a fairytale feeling to the set. This was our first production following a major lighting system upgrade, and I made full use of the new equipment, creating a wild and playful lighting design. Costumes were kept traditional for Shakespeare’s era, designed by Jenna McElroy. I do most of the set and lighting design for our shows.
Ripeness Is All was given a steampunk treatment, at the request of the show’s director, KJ Melson, who wanted something that honored the weight of the tragedy depicted in the script but remained visually compelling. This carried through the design of the set, costumes by Emma Savidge, and props by Courtney Calkins. We used large lightweight drapes (a first for us) to be able to billow during the raging storm scene halfway through the show. The result was quite dramatic. This all-female adaptation was the work of Norwegian poet and playwright Ren Powell, written specifically for our company.
A MidWinter Night’s Dream was another original adaptation, written by Alex DeRoest, who lives in Marysville. Alex has written original adaptations for us in the past with his Klingon-filled M’aQ B’EtH, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, based on the 1950s sci-fi B movie. The set for MidWinter was largely inspired by the Tchaikovsky sequence from Disney’s Fantasia. I had hoped to create a set that felt cold to the audience and helped immerse them in the world of the play. A stone henge and druidic dais suggested this adaptation’s Nordic influences, which were further supported by the costumes, designed by Tucker Ferguson, a student at Snohomish High School.
The design for Shakespeare’s R&J is meant to evoke the impression of a traditional parochial private school, but in a liminal state, where everything is suggested and somewhat floating. This gives the show the feeling of being set in a dreamworld, halfway between sleep and waking. My design for this set originated with the desire to set the deaths of the two young lovers high above the audience, rather than on the floor of the stage.
Upcoming sets will include an abandoned theatre for Complete Works and a New England fishing village for Twelfth Night. No designs have been started for Into the Breeches, but it will be staged realistically in England during WWII.
Red Curtain Foundation for the Arts’ season runs through June 9, in Marysville: Shakespeare’s R&J (closing 2/4); The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged][revised][again] (3/1-17); Into the Breeches (4/12-28); Twelfth Night (5/24-6/9). Schedule and tickets here.
More to See
Familiar Contemporary Names
From its Pulitzer Prize Award for Drama (2022), Broadway run, and Tony Award nomination for Best Play (among others), James Ijames’ modern riff on Hamlet has made quite a name for itself. Fat Ham, in which a young queer Black man must choose between taking revenge and breaking the cycle of trauma, will have its Pacific Northwest premiere at Seattle Rep (April 12-May 12).
Around the Sound, some titles and authors seem to pop up frequently. Among them is one condensed show that allows you to see all of the Bard’s works (sort of) in one go. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), in its various forms (including [revised] and [revised][again]), has shown up at Puget Sound-area theatres over the past few years, including at The Changing Scene Theatre Northwest in Bremerton and Tacoma (in spring 2022) and Lakewood Playhouse (fall 2023). This March, two more theatres join that list: Red Curtain in Marysville (March 1-17) and Olympia’s Harlequin Productions (March 15-31).
A title that’s better known as a star-studded ’90s movie title, the stage adaptation of the film Shakespeare in Love goes up at North Bend’s Valley Center Stage mid-month (February 16-March 3).
Prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson takes on Shakespeare with a story of the First Folio, the published collection that more or less made possible the Bard’s lasting legacy. Gunderson’s play, The Book of Will, opened last weekend at Greenwood’s Taproot Theatre, where it runs through February 24; and gets another production the following month at Bainbridge Performing Arts (March 8-24).
Takes on the Classics
Loads of companies are bringing their unique form and vision to some of Shakespeare’s classic works.
Among the area’s universities, the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, starts things off with Measure for Measure (February 23-March 2). Director Sara Freeman seeks to “strip the play down to its essence and see how it uncomfortably and brilliantly resonates with our era of backlash and confusion about prohibitions and bans, both on ideas and reproductive rights; the effects of policing and the nature of safety; and the freedom to live and love with self-determination.”
Later on, Seattle Pacific University’s drama program will showcase student actors and dramaturgs in a present-day rendering of Romeo and Juliet, May 30-31. (Seattle Shakespeare Company will also tackle Romeo and Juliet, April 24-May 12.) Directed by Candace Vance and Shelby Lunderman, SPU’s fringe take seeks to embrace both shoestring-budget producing and the politics of Shakespeare’s text, asking, “What does it mean when children become the casualties of war?” Meanwhile, the University of Washington’s Undergraduate Theatre Society hasn’t announced its dates yet, but it’s scheduled to take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at some point in the spring.
Further north, Whidbey Island’s summer Island Shakespeare Festival tackles an intriguing duo: Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Aphra Behn’s The Lucky Chance. The latter, a 17th century comedy lancing sexism of the day (and which Julie Beckman will direct), makes an enticing thematic pairing with Green’s The Bed Trick earlier in the year.
During the summer outdoor season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will get at least a couple more looks. Dacha Theatre brings its flagship role-swapping “Dice” style — in which a roll determines the roles — to various parks this summer; while Bainbridge Performing Arts returns to Bloedel Reserve for their outdoor show. (Note that the summer seasonal companies — including GreenStage and Seattle Shakespeare’s Wooden O and Backyard Bard — haven’t announced their lineups yet; stay tuned for those later in the year.)
And while most theatres haven’t teased their fall shows just yet, leave it to Noveltease to have made their reveal. The “literary burlesque” company, known for its adaptations of classic works presented through theatrical burlesque productions, will put on a be-tasseled interpretation of Hamlet in October.
Whatever your views on the Bard, there will be plenty of ways to dig into Shakespeare’s legacy this year.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.