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Why See Another Shakespeare Play?

Fergus O’Donnell (Malvolio) and Lizzy Watts (Olivia) in Filter Theatre’s ‘Twelfth Night’. Photo credit – Robert Day.

Why so much Shakespeare? Isango Ensemble’s operatic adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream seemingly just left the Cutler Majestic and now we’re gearing up for Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, coming to the Paramount main stage in January. Not too long ago, we screened a brilliant and historically accurate production of Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance from Shakepeare’s Globe. Why another? Why more Shakespeare?


Bringing up Shakespeare in public conversation can be a questionable move. For some people, just the mention of his name sparks fireworks and declarations of love for every word the man ever wrote. This kind of dedication usually comes from a life changing first encounter. Maybe it was the faeries in a community theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Maybe it was a fierce lit professor who pointed out that Queen Margaret is far more badass than Richard III could ever dream of being. Either way, in their eyes he is the greatest wordsmith in the history of mankind.


Others will respond with a thinly veiled eye-roll and the mannerisms of someone desperate for a change of topic. Perhaps this person had a less than ideal introduction with Britain’s favorite son – usually an underwhelming high school run-in with Hamlet. Or maybe, and stick with me on this, they just aren’t that into him. They would never deny his cultural significance, but when it comes to sitting and watching it, there is more appeal in doing just about anything else.


So when your options are evangelical disciples or disillusioned hater, why would anyone go about producing or reinterpreting the works of William Shakespeare? And yet, we do. A lot. A study of the professional theater from 2000-2010 not only proved Shakespeare the most produced playwright of the decade, but placed him over a thousand productions above the second-place playwright. Since then, the amount of Shakespeare on American stages has noticeably increased. T.S. Eliot once said, “the most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.” And yet so many artists and institutions take the risk.

Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance in Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of Twelfth Night

Why do we do it? The Shakespeare fan will point to the timelessness of the text. Which is valid. The wordplay, the characters, the insane plots that range from “teen romance gone bad” to “vengeful queen fed sons via meat pie” – there’s a lot to work with there. His plots are so varied and adaptable that many people refer to Shakespeare as a kind of gate-way drug to the theater. In the best way possible his canon has become a lowest common denominator, a safe way to get people to engage with a text that has been approved by centuries of western culture in the hopes that new audiences will dive deeper and ask for more.


This fall, Michał Zadara (director of Chopin Without Piano) said that people create and attend theater because of an inherent promise of universality. This feels especially true of Shakespeare’s work. His stories are often regarded as expressions of fundamental human nature, not dissimilar from folk tales and religious texts. Over the centuries, artists from every corner of the globe have celebrated the universality of the plays by creating productions from their individual and cultural perspectives.


Filter Theatre’s approach to Twelfth Night began in 2006 at the Complete Works Festival held by the Royal Shakespeare Company with an extremely limited budget and a fraction of the rehearsal time a company might usually prefer. The urgency in this approach pops the core of the story – it captures the magic that makes the true believers return to Shakespeare year after year.


Every time a new set of artists gets into bed with Shakespeare, there is an opportunity for fanatics and skeptics alike to have their perceptions challenged. Sure – it may result in reinforcement of preconceived notions, but every time theater doors open and an audiences files in, there’s always a chance that magic will happen as it has for many over the years.


So that’s why.


PS. Did I mention it’s 90 minutes? To quote the Bard himself, “If you be not mad, be gone; if you have reason, be brief.”


Twelfth Night presented by Filter Theatre in affiliation with the Royal Shakespeare Company presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre Main Stage from January 20 – January 30. Tickets available by calling 617.824.8400 and at artsemeron.org

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