Friday, July 8, 2011

Poetry Friday: What gives us shape?

Elizabethan clothing
 (or what gave bodies shape in those times)

Last week, I attended No Kidding Shakespeare Camp for the second year in a row. (You can read about last year's rowdy adventures here.) This year was less rambunctious, perhaps due to the overarching theme (structure), but absolutely satisfying all the same. We heard from the architect who designed the lovely Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, talked trapdoors and lighting and costuming and rhetoric in the early modern theater, and saw a rehearsal of Hamlet and two plays---Shakespeare's The Tempest and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

The structure of the ceiling of the Blackfriars Playhouse
in Staunton, VA

As last year, I was awed by the actors' generosity, both in their performances and in their interactions with guests at the American Shakespeare Center. Watching the rehearsal of Hamlet was like watching a fabulously scary and wonderful roller coaster assemble itself on stage. In addition to the complex characters being built from Shakespeare's twisty and highly structured language, the cast is also constructing the ride's special effects. The ASC has no tech crew or elaborate sets; so when the ghost walks, it's the actors who create the supernatural atmosphere, from eery wind noises to the cock crowing to the trumpets that signal the change of scene. It was amusing and impressive to see the director call for someone who could do a cock crow and have the actors sort it out from backstage; ditto for the trumpet volley, which was offered vocally in three different riffs for the director to choose from. All the while, between these bursts of practical machinery adjusting, the actors played on, creating the emotional tracks on which the audience will rise and plunge. I can't wait to go back and see this Hamlet, which previews July 10.

Actors Ben Curns and Allison Glenzer also came to our camp sessions on rhetoric and played out, on the spot, variations to monologues they had so securely in their heads and bodies that no matter what we threw at them, they absorbed it and reflected the change back to us.  Ben's portrayal of Caliban in The Tempest was nearly overwhelming to watch at close range---he creates a "monster" so piteous and clearly abused that you ache for justice and some human dignity for him, and yet by turns, he is reprehensible, ridiculous, and soaked in such a lust for revenge and love that he will commit to anyone that will give him a taste of it. In a later session, we circled Allison, as she invested Trinculo, the jester, with swaggeringly false wisdom and hilariously shaky bravado as he inspects the "half-man/half-fish" of Caliban's hidden body.  She then shared her clown training and how she "vacuums out" the female characteristics of herself to reveal the men she's often cast to play. It was a rare gift to watch both of them.

A camper tries on the French wheel

As to the two play performances I saw, they were brave and lovely and funny, and I highly recommend you get to Staunton and see them for yourself.  The Importance of Being Earnest, while not Shakespeare, certainly has the language chops, and the troupe served up Oscar Wilde's witty skewering of humanity with relish. The entire cast was wonderful, but I was especially fond of Rene Thornton's Jack, whose sincerity in pursing love to its confused ends was a foil to all the brittle barbs flying about. It turns out earnestness is endearing. :)

Equally as strong, The Tempest opens with a stunning storm, created by the actors out of not much beyond thin air, strong rope, and a broad sheet of cloth. The players then go on to invest the play with waves of comedy, more than usual for The Tempest, I think. The performances include a sympathetic Prospero---a feat accomplished by James Keegan's calm-in-the-center portrayal---and a cleverly funny Miranda/Ferdinand romance, courtesy of Miriam Donald and Patrick Midgley, and of course, Ben Curns's heart-wrenching Caliban and Allison Glenzer's boisterous Trinculo as mentioned above.

A completely hand-sewn ruff

To me, Shakespeare's The Tempest asks us: okay, so what would YOU do if you were in charge of the world? Or if that's too much, a little island? Or for that matter, a stage? Or, say, even smaller, our own bodies? How many ways do we want to be master of our fates and yet choose the most unworthy ways to structure our lives?

Which brings me, at last, to Poetry Friday. Having Fridays filled with poetry is a sound way to anchor a week, I think. Poetry asks us to give shape to our days.  To ask what we're playing at.

Months ago, I attempted a sestina at the urging of my Poetry Sisters, but never shared it. It's a terrifying kind of poem, shaped by a scheme that asks you to repeat the same set of six words over and over in a rotating pattern.  I learned a lot by writing it, mostly that rules are how we begin the game.  After that, it's play on, as hard as you can.

Play on (a sestina)

I was made, as all, to make a mark,
made hasty fast, BANG! here
on floorboards cast,
a slight of light
hooked by barb of sperm with crooked line
to tender egg, in open-mouthed want.

I want for want
of what’s marked
as mine, biting at the flick of line---
Quickly there! No, fast, hold to here!
Chasing lapping rounds of light
shedding mortal coil and wormlike cast

til I’m a roil of slurry caught in rigid cast
to drain of stinging want;
fettered, I’m released as light---
a fellow of “no likelihood or mark.”
Is there nothing of me here?
Shut up; you distress the line.

Speak trippingly as tongue can master line;
for the die is---oh the drama!---fatal cast;
soon we’ll be---as they say---anywhere but here
where patrons queue to satiate their want
in gilded halls as barren as St. Mark’s,
while we make part with shadowed light

and in full sight of all our breath do heat til we light
a raw-birthed tempest between the ordered lines;
crack winds! blow cheeks! we overtop the given marks
end-stopped by neither fixed form nor as by words forecast;
filled---after---with wanton wonton want---
hey! ho! nonny! absurdity follows brilliance here

Lost in the now and here
in wasted light
tell me you didn’t want
it and I’ll make the words align.
I’ll release, as falconer does, the pairs as cast:
On the mark, by the mark, to the mark, we were such an easy mark

All we want is here
unmarked by time and reformed by light
Line to line, we ourselves recast.

---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Elaine at Wild Rose Reader

What does it all mean?
Talking about the play 

More pictures from Shakespeare Camp are here. A snapshot of the week's schedule is below.