Joss Whedon does Shakespeare

When I first heard that Joss Whedon, one of my favorite director/writers was doing an adaptation of Much Ado, I was super excited. I think everyone told me… definitely my uncle, and my friend Jess, and my co-youth group leader.

This will be delightful, given that it’s basically the Joss-verse doing the Shakespeare verse. And Nathan Fillion is in it! I can go all fangirl over him, ever since he was Mal on Firefly, but particularly as Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible.

Can’t wait! C’mon DC movie theatres, let’s pick this one up!

Romeo & Juliet + Romeo & Juliet = Romeos & Juliets?

Given how much Shakespeare I haven’t seen, it’s comical how much Romeo and Juliet I have seen. At Shakespeare’s R&J, so many moments from other Romeo and Juliets crept into my head:

Paris is always Paul Rudd


I found myself falling into the Paul Rudd/Clare Danes party scene in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet as Paris chases Juliet at the Capulet’s party. I’m pretty sure that, in my head, Paris will never not be Paul Rudd.

On a similar theme:

Balthasar is always Jesse Bradford


Remember Romeo’s adorable sidekick with exactly one EXTREMELY IMPORTANT JOB, which he manages to mess up? Yeah, he was the guy who was supposed to tell Romeo that Juliet was only fake-dead, but he didn’t get the message, and it ended up like this:

Via tumblr

Anyway, my high school friend LOVED JESSE BRADFORD, so his few cameos were a big deal. Because of this, Balthasar is way more important than most characters in Romeo and Juliet (at least in my world).

He kill your brother

It’s hard to survive the post-Tybalt death time without a small mental homage to West Side Story. Really “Tybalt’s dead and Romeo banished!” does that to me.

Ben Affleck as the most affected Mercutio

Depending on how much swagger Mercutio has, he occasionally reminds me of Shakespeare in Love, when Ben Affleck’s character gets assigned the role of Mercutio, under the guise that Mercutio is the most important character. Oh Mercutio. You plot device, you.

Puns kill me

The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works has forever changed my hearing of “call me but love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet”… Butt-love! Butt-love! In the height of one of the most romantic moments in the play, I struggled to stifle a giggle.

Scenic, but Cynic in the light

The romantic nights followed by the harsh realities of the day just make me want to say “This plum is TOO RIPE.”

For reference, I don’t have a Romeo

As much as I have a Balthasar and a Mercutio, I don’t have a particular actor I think of when presented with Romeo. Leonardo DiCaprio is really Titanic for me. And you can’t be Romeo and die on a transatlantic crossing in 1912.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Kindle vs. Real Book

I was perusing a used book rack today and saw, all in a row, the 6-volume Complete Works of William Shakespeare! Of course I scraped together the $3 for the set.
My new pile of books: the 6 volume Bantam Complete Works of William Shakespeare
So, I’ve been reading plays on my Kindle, because it’s easy to carry and that’s a big deal for me. But it’s frustrating, because the edition I’m reading has some typos, and doesn’t have really good intros or contextual information.

A cursory glance at this edition has SO MANY EXCITING THINGS compared to my Oxford Complete Works, Kindle Edition.

Shakespeare wrote in l33t?

This is picky, but my Kindle Edition has some line numbers in the text of the play. They’re neither consistent nor useful for reference – I’d complain less if they appeared on every line or if they were formatted to appear along the right side of the screen. This is probably a remnant of an OCR scan of the paper version, and should have been removed before publication. I understand the complexity of digitizing books, but really, Oxford, pay attention to detail.

I'm sure Shakespeare intended the line number to be in the text...

Kindle edition has stray line numbers in the text.

I'm sure Shakespeare was thinking about line least the paper edition isolates them from text.

Paper version keeps the line numbers out of the way.

The Kindle Edition makes up more words than Shakespeare

The Kindle edition has some misspelled words.

Why is your cheek so pate? (What is pate?)

The book spells the words correctly.

Oh, PALE. He meant pale.

…and you can’t look them up

One of the biggest perks of having a digital book is how quickly you can look words up. But Shakespeare’s language isn’t always in the dictionary. It seems ironic that the books have more meta-information than the digital copy

Looking up the word "momentany" results in a "No Definition Found" response.

When the words on the Kindle are correct, you can’t always look them all up.

Momentany means "lasting but a moment" according to the paper version's glossary.

Definitions are on the bottom of every page in the paper edition.

Each volume weighs a kilo

Each book weighs 927 grams.

Three Kindles make One Book

Note: This includes my Kindle case. Kindle Touch (what I have) is freakishly light.
Kindle Weight: 299 grams

In conclusion, books weigh a ton

I held part of the 6th volume to get a reading, because all 6 books maxxed out my scale.
6 books max out my scale, but a partially supported pile is 5.131 kilos.

Everything I know before reading or seeing: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

One of the plays most conspicuously out of my Shakespeare knowledge and repertoire is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m going to see it next weekend at the Indiana Repertory Theatre with my parents.

Fun fact: Family friend Henry is in the production we’re going to see.
ADDITIONAL FUN FACT: Henry and I were born in the same hospital. Crazy!

In preparation for this new life experience I’ve assembled my current knowledge of the play. Needless to say, I WILL take a read of it, but for now, this is what I know and where I know it from. About half of what I remember is from Dead Poets Society.

There are fairies

There are fairies in the play. I believe these show up when everyone’s out in the woods partying maybe halfway through the play. I know about this because I went to the ballet once, and they were doing an act of the play in ballet form, and there were fairies.

I also know this from watching Dead Poets Society, because so many people were fairies.

And I triply know this because people in my high school were fairies in it.

At least one scene is in a forest

Part of the play takes place in a forest. I know this because we had an EPIC tree in my high school theatre department from their production of Midsummer. I believe this was the year before I was a freshman. We re-used the tree in every production that needed a tree, including Robin Hood, where I also worked on making a tree. Both trees were chicken wire stapled to a wooden superstructure, then covered with muslin and glue.

There’s a play-within-a-play


Hermia, Puck, and Bottom are in it

There is a character named Hermia. I’m not sure where I got that from, but I’m pretty sure she’s really important. I think Lysander’s probably in this play, too.

Someone turns into an ass

There is definitely an ass in the play. And I’m pretty sure at another part in the play, they are a person. I’m not sure why or how, but I’m pretty sure this happens in the overnight, in-the-woods festivities, and that the faries are involved. And I’m not sure if it’s because he is an ass or because he’s a fool. I think this is part of my extant knowledge of Shakespeare – there is an ass in Midsummer. I think it’s just a fact.

The hole in the wall monologue

In the play-within-a-play, there’s the hole-in-the-wall monologue, where Bottom (I think) holds his hand up and makes a hole, and talks about what he sees on the other side. This scene was featured in Dead Poets AND was one of the Shakespeare scenes I remember from Drama class. I think there’s a moment in Fantastiks that references this. It’s a good bet that this is a standard cultural reference.

What fools these mortals be!

I feel so clever knowing that I know so little about this really well-known play.

Play #1: Shakespeare’s R&J

So, I was stumbling around the internet and found an ad for Joe Calarco’s “Shakespeare’s R&J” at the Signature Theatre in Shirlington, VA on WAMU’s website. They had discount tickets, and I was so excited to find a Shakespeare-esque play so soon after starting this project! After a few weeks of no-go scheduling, my frind Jess and I booked a Saturday evening show using the $25 Signature Shakespeare Stalls program for discount great seats.

Shakespeare's R&J Ticket

Romeo and Juliet?

I didn’t know what to expect from this play. The promo posters were all preppy looking guys and the synopsis on the website implied that this was a production about Romeo and Juliet inspired explorations of sexuality. I had no idea if the play would be about Romeo and Juliet or be a modern reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet. The play turned out to be mostly the text of Romeo and Juliet performed by four boys in secret in a boarding school. The liberties taken with Shakespeare’s text were few, which I did not anticipate.
Shakespeare's R&J Program

R&J all night at boarding school

The play opened with the four prep school boys marching around in formations and chanting Latin conjugations. One or two at a time, they would from the rigorous exercises to be boys – goofing, laughing, fooling around. One read from his journal of love and romance – he would play Romeo. During the rest of the play when something scary happened – thunder, or a teacher coming – all of the boys except Romeo would revert to this world of strict behavior, signaling a break in the magic of Romeo and Juliet.

Only four actors?

The boys act out Romeo and Juliet, reading from a contraband copy of the play they’ve hidden under a floorboard. The four actors take on not only the schoolboys, but also all of the major roles in Romeo and Juliet: the romantic boy as Romeo, a more serious boy as a strong and not-simpering Juliet, the lankiest actor as many supporting characters, notably the Friar and Mercutio, and the fourth actor in the character roles as both the comical Nurse and the raging Tybalt.

I was surprised at how easy it was to follow character assignment and reassignment during the course of the play. The playwright did me a favor by introducing and reintroducing characters while the boys were assigned roles. Romeo and Juliet is usually played with many actors for the 28 named characters in the script, and I’ve found that some of the less central characters (like Mercutio and Benvolio) are harder to keep track of. With roles were assigned in situ you always knew who the players on stage were.

In the ferocious scene where Juliet’s dad learns of her romance, three actors took on the role of the angry father, berating Juliet from all sides. The amplified emotions throughout the production reminded me that Juliet was a teenager and this was her whole world – her angst and anguish and love were fully immersive – and the storytelling in this production dragged me back to my teenage heightened emotions.

Reality and fantasy

The play’s frame story was intense and sensual as characters fell into and out of the drama of R&J and the repressive environment of their school. The plot revolved around the boy who played Romeo romancing the boy who played Juliet, only to be rejected at the end of the night. The play ends with his hasty depart.

Over the course of the play, he changed from being exactly the same as the other three boys – conforming to the firm catholic school rigor – to succumbing to his romantic spirit. In stark contrast, the other three boys returned to the characters they started as after the night of living R&J. I wondered how much the characters had actually changed and whether they suppressed the transformations they’d undergone in the dark or whether it was just a night-time folly.

The production itself was incredibly physical – with few props (a box, some chairs, a book, and a 20-foot-long piece of red silk) on a raised square stage, the actors tumbled, danced, and fought with each other. The few props were improvised furniture, weapons, bedsheets and blood as required by the boys’ interpretation of the play.

An understudy performed the night we were there, but since the program listed the cast only as Boy 1, Boy 2, Boy 3, and Boy 4, we didn’t know who it was. It’s most impressive to watch gymnastic theatre with incredible group coordination and choreography knowing that one of the actors DOESN’T do this every night but fits seamlessly into the ensemble performance. There was no room for error in some of the scenes. Moreso, it was impressive to realize that these actors did this every night – what a workout!

It’s like you were in the play

While the scenery was sparse, the sound and lighting design lured the me into every scene. In the round, a piece of the balcony had been designated “moon” and, while only visible to half of the audience, let the stage leak out into the rest of the theatre as the play happened around us. And, as scenes required, the front wall of the balconies was washed in color, saturating the space. The queen Mab speech was performed in chorus with voices coming from every side. It was like being plunged into Shakespeare.

For only a few moments, the stage was fully isolated from the rest of the theatre. Romeo’s midnight visit to Juliet’s bed separated the audience from the lovers by a ring of candles which descended to frame the stage, their bed. When they meet in the woods in the rain, the audience was painted a deep blue while drops of light appeared on the stage with stereophonic water drops, which the boys ran to like a cat to a laser beam. From the balcony, looking down on the stage, we had the full effect of the light forming puddles on the stage, and later, graceful screen patterns around Juliet’s bedroom.

Playbill and director Joe Calarco have great pictures from the show.

Best moments

Benvolio, drunk and in the woods, yelling for the absent Romeo

Objectively, this was an actor on a stage, stumbling around a box, but in the style of Shakespeare’s globe, I remember it as a drunken goofball tripping over a fallen tree in a mossy wood.


There’s a power outage at the frame story school in the middle of the play, and the actors light themselves and the room with flashlights. It’s incredibly intimate and raw to break from the intentionally cool and warm theatre lights to the bright and slightly garish light of flashlights.

Woe / Juliet and her Romeo

After the dramatic deaths, the end of the production slowed down as the boys extracted themselves from the intensity of the night. The closing speech was particularly touching – the line “give me your hands” was accompanied by a demonstration of deep camaraderie amongst the boys as they shook hands and patted backs. I sat waiting for “never was a story of such woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” for longer than was comfortable as the boy Romeo dealt with rejection by his Juliet.

And a criticism

I know I just sung the praises of this production. But there was one thing that irked me during the show. While I really enjoyed some of the sound effects, using voice recordings to throw the actors voices around the space and multiply the cast of 4, some of the sound recordings weren’t as good as the actors on stage. I really appreciated the parts where the sound was an extension of the on-stage action, but sometimes it overamplified, overmodified, or just went too far outside of the grounded voices of the actors in the room.

Two hours stage

This was a great production, and I’m glad I knew little about it before going to it. The pacing was exciting and intimate, and the emotions ranged from intense and to hilarious. Watching it unfold without knowing it would actually (mostly) be Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was exciting. And the unexpected switches from Romeo and Juliet to the boys’ reality made it feel covert and magical. Perfect first play in my Shakespeare series!

Draught of Living Death: Harry Potter and Shakespeare

Draught of Living Death

Portia the Lawyer and I had this conversation watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Clearly, one of us was an English major and one of us just read Cymbeline.

Living Death Potions in Shakespeare

While Romeo and Juliet used it first, at least these two plays feature a death-like sleeping potion as a polt device.

Juliet (R&J) and Innogen (Cymbeline) both take the potion and both of them wake up next to someone they presume to be their dead husband. Innogen is betrayed by both Clotus’s attire and lack of head into thinking he’s Posthumus – in everyone’s defense with this costuming, at that point in the play, she’s passing herself off as a boy named Fidele.  Unlike Juliet, she’s not a teenager with the crazy hormones and doesn’t kill herself. Well done, Innogen.

What’s interesting is what they know about when they take the potion. Juliet knows what she’s in for – and has co-conspirators. But it’s unclear what Innogen knows about the drug. Her (crazy) stepmother procured what she THOUGHT was poison, under the auspices of using it to kill the pesky cats and dogs. As everyone’s helper in Cymbeline, Pisanio was supposed to give it to Innogen to kill her, but she doesn’t take it until much later in the play. I didn’t read closely enough to ascertain whether she knows she’s taking a sleeping potion, or if she thinks it’s something else.

…and the apothecaries who make it

Juliet’s apothocary was enabling her defiant love – she got the potion to feign death as a way to escape from her family’s bonds and be properly married to Romeo.

Cymbeline’s Queen’s doctor was preventing murder – he wouldn’t give the Queen the poison she requested, because who trusts a crazy queen with something actually deathly?

With the centuries and miles between these plays, I wonder whether they were using the same type of potion, and if so, how they learned it. Given that the Draught of Living Death is on the curriculum at Hogwarts, could this be a standard thing? And if so, why have I only found it in these places?

Given that Hogwarts was founded c. 1000, it could have trained Romeo and Juliet’s apothecary (set in the 1500s or 1600s) and learned from the lineage of Cymbeline’s Queen’s doctor, Cornelius (from AD 0ish). It’s fun to think of how these universes might collide.

UNRELATED: Potions with Portia

On the related theme of potions, Portia the Lawyer brought us butterbeer for Harry Potter movie time:
Butter Beer
I think the recipe is something like:

  • Cream Soda
  • Butterscotch liquor
  • Whipped cream vodka

Zombies and Living Death

I acknowledge that I’m looking at a particular type of potion in a particular context. This is not to say that there aren’t other real-life and fictional living death incidences. Mostly, zombies. But that’s for another day.