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Thursday, May 26, 2011

But I Will Wed Thee in Another Key


Theseus is one of the founding kings of Athens. His mother was Aethra, the princess of Troezen, and his father was Aegeus, the Athenian king -- and also Poseidon, god of the sea. In a story similar to that of England’s Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, when Theseus came of age, he claimed Aegeus’s sword and sandals, which had been hidden under a rock. Attempting to prove his worthiness to be Aegeus’s heir, Theseus volunteered to be sent to Crete, hoping to end the series of Athenian sacrifices to the Minotaur. He was able to make his way into and out of King Minos’s labyrinth and kill the Minotaur with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne. After making their escape from Crete, Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Before leaving on his quest, Theseus had agreed to change the sails of his ship from black to white if he succeeded. He neglected to change the sails; Aegeus saw the black sails, believed his son was dead, and threw himself into the sea (now called the Aegean) in despair.

Rejected by the nobles of Athens, Theseus went into voluntary exile. During this time, he waged war against the Amazons, capturing their queen, Hippolyta. Soon after, in some versions of the myth, the Amazons attacked Athens, and Theseus led the successful defense. With their insistence on women’s rule and military prowess – and with their reliance on men only for the purposes of procreation – the Amazons presented a challenge to Greek male ideas about civilization and natural order. Theseus, the archetypal Athenian hero, was compelled to set things right, at least from the perspective of such ideas.

Some versions of the myth report that Theseus had earlier married Phaedra, a princess from his mother’s country. After Theseus went back to her, Hippolyta returned to the Amazon lands, leaving their son Hippolytus with Theseus. Other versions say that Hippolyta defiantly appeared at the subsequent wedding of Theseus and Phaedra, along with Hippolytus, and demanded that Theseus remain faithful to her; in response, the wedding guests killed her. In all versions, the eventual fates of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra are also the stuff of tragedy.

This classical lore is complicated in Shakespeare’s retelling by another source, The Canterbury Tales. Here’s the beginning of “The Knight’s Tale,” the first in Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection of stories. The narrative eventually features two gentlemen fighting over one lady (sound familiar?), with one of the gentlemen disguising himself as an attendant named Philostrate (that is, “the man brought down by love”). But it opens with Theseus and Hippolyta –

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Once upon a time, as old stories say,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
There was a duke named Theseus:
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
And in his time was such a conqueror
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
That none was greater under the sun.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,
Full many a rich country had he subdued
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;
With his wisdom and his military might:
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
He conquered all the realm of Womankind,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
That once was called Scythia,
And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And wedded the queen Hippolyta,
And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,
Bringing her home with him to his country
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
With much glory and great solemnity,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.
And also her young sister Emily.
And thus with victorie and with melodye
And thus with triumph and with song
Lete I this noble duc to Atthenes ryde,
I let this noble duke ride to Athens
And al his hoost, in armes hym bisyde.
Along with all his armed host beside him.
And certes, if it nere to long to heere,
And truly, were it not too long to hear,
I wolde have toold yow fully the manere
I would have told you fully the manner
How wonnen was the regne of Femenye
How the realm of Womankind was won
By Theseus, and by his chivalrye,
By Theseus and by his knights
And of the grete bataille for the nones
And of the great battle at that time
Bitwixen Atthenes and Amazones,
Between Athens and the Amazon lands,
And how asseged was Ypolita
And how besieged was Hippolyta
The faire hardy queene of Scithia,
The fair and hardy queen of Scythia,
And of the feste that was at hir weddynge,
And of the festival at their wedding,
And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge;
And of the tempest at their homecoming;
But al the thyng I moot as now forbere . . .
But all of that I must, just now, forbear . . .

But much of what Chaucer’s Knight skips over, William Shakespeare explores in detail in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Flatwater Shakespeare Company presents

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
directed by Bob Hall

Dates: June 15-19, 22-26
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Place: Lincoln Community Foundation Gardens
"N" Street, Between 14th and Centennial Mall, Lincoln
Information: 402-473-2897
$10 Suggested Donation

(Illustration from a Greek vase showing Theseus attacking Hippolyta, who is defended by Deinomache.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Revised Schedule -- And Dreaming Is Free!

William Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy unfolds under the moon and stars in downtown Lincoln this summer as The Flatwater Shakespeare Company stages A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Lincoln Community Foundation Gardens, on N Street between 14th and Centennial Mall. The paths of young lovers, meddling spirits, and amateur tragedians cross hilariously and combine with a Royal Wedding of mythic proportions. In honor of the “Celebrate Lincoln” street fair on June 10-11, Flatwater Shakespeare will delay the opening until Wednesday, June 15. The production will now run for two weeks, Wednesdays through Sundays, 7:30 p.m., to June 26. Call 402-473-2897 for information.

Thanks to several grants and in keeping both with our mission to engage new audiences for classic theater and with our desire to reward our existing audience, which has supported Flatwater Shakespeare so strongly over eleven years, we are offering attendance at all performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream free of charge. We suggest a freewill donation of ten dollars but our policy is – donate what you can or donate nothing at all and just give Shakespeare a try. The mainstage production has received generous support from the Lincoln Community Foundation, the Cooper Foundation, and the Lincoln Arts Council. The Woods Charitable Trust has funded a subsequent tour of the show.

Theseus, Duke of Athens, anxiously awaits his marriage to recent conquest Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Complicating matters is a dispute between the lady Hermia and her father, Egeus. Hermia loves Lysander, but Egeus has chosen Demetrius as a more suitable match. Hermia and Lysander run away into the woods, pursued by Demetrius – who is pursued by the lady Helena. In the forest, another royal couple is having problems: Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the faerie world, are locked in a bitter dispute. Also in the forest, a company of amateur actors has gathered to rehearse a play in Theseus and Hippolyta’s honor. The mischievous sprite Puck, who serves as Oberon’s court jester, interferes with the lovers, the actors, and the affections of his King and Queen. Somehow, as Puck says, “all shall be well” in one of Shakespeare’s most harmonious conclusions.

Director Bob Hall has brought together a vital and engaging ensemble to cast an appropriately magical spell. Darin Hemmer and Catherine Coffey appear in dual roles, as Theseus and Hippolyta, and also as Oberon and Titania. Mike Lee doubles as Puck and as Philostrate, responsible for the wedding festivities. Petrea Whittier, Rob Burt, Maggie Austin, and Peter Swanke appear as the young lovers. The workingmen who love the stage are Eric Ojeda, Robie Hayek, Nate Ruleaux, Andy Dillehay, Tom Bolin, and Josh Woolery. Paul Pearson appears as Hermia’s outraged father. The denizens of the faerie realm are played by Jessie Tidball, Sydney Ray, Jennifer Holm, Madison Smith, Jordan Deffenbough, Cory Misek, and Christian Novotny. Janice Stauffer is costume designer and Dustin Witte is prop master.

For the two weekends following our run at Lincoln Community Foundation Gardens, Thursday through Sunday evenings, June 30 through July 10, Flatwater Shakespeare will take A Midsummer Night’s Dream on tour to parks and other outdoor locations around Lincoln. It will play at 7:00 p.m. and will also be offered free of charge. The list of sites is currently under review by the City of Lincoln and will be sent out upon approval. This touring version is sponsored by a grant from the Woods Charitable Trust and by Prescott Elementary School, First Plymouth Congregational Church, and the Lincoln Department of Parks and Recreation. A youth production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Tom Crew, is also in preparation, funded by the Nebraska Humanities Council.

For more information, please visit www.flatwatershakespeare.org.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dates: June 15-19, 22-26
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Place: Lincoln Community Foundation Gardens
"N" Street, Between 14th and Centennial Mall, Lincoln
Information: 402-473-2897
$10 Suggested Donation

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Spirits of Another Sort

“Wisdom has build herself a house.” (Proverbs 9.1)

God (absolute being, not pictured)

Angel (higher spirit)
Heavens (planetary intelligences)
Human Being
Animal (here, a lion)
Plant (here, a tree)
Active Thing=

Passive Thing=

Among the many smart things that Shakespeare does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most effective is his combination of down-home folklore with high-minded philosophy. English villagers and townspeople alike knew about beings like the Fairy Queen (sometimes called Mab – as in Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet) and Robin Goodfellow (sometimes called the Lubber Fiend – that is, “Laboring Spirit”) and their connections with the natural and supernatural worlds. Renaissance philosophy proposed that there was a Chain of Being, a ladder or stairway linking, at the bottom, raw matter (pure Becoming) and, at the top, the divine (pure Being). Everything in existence fits somewhere on the ladder -- see the illustration above.

The diagram cheats a little bit here: humankind is theoretically the mid-point between becoming and being. There was also a category between humans and the heavens, between reasoning creatures and the intellectual beings that kept the planets and stars on their proper courses. This additional category was for elemental spirits connected with the powers and properties of the four elements – air, fire, water, earth. Think of Ariel in The Tempest, clearly a spirit of air. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies of English folk tales are presented as elemental spirits. Titania and her followers keep the seasons in proper order through their graceful dances; Oberon understands the occult properties of flowers and herbs; Puck can travel up and down the Chain of Being at will, assuming any form he wishes. He can even be a passive thing like a stool, which he then makes active – slipping out from under a teller of folk tales.

These are literally superior beings, which explains their mixed attitudes of affection and condescension and sometimes contempt (“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”) toward humankind. It’s important to remember that any fairy, even an attendant or henchman, is literally (if not dramatically) superior to the noblest human. The fairies’ higher status on the Chain of Being explains why they have (from the human perspective) such extraordinary – one could say magical – powers and why they inspire such fear and awe.

Watch for further details of the Flatwater Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- coming to downtown Lincoln and to city parks this June!

(Illustration from 16th-century edition of Ramon Llull's Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus)