The year 1986 was a notable one for Chicago theatre. That’s when the first Chicago International Theatre Festival opened, bringing in a range of companies, including National Theatre of Great Britain, the Market Theatre of South Africa, and Japan’s Suzuki Company. It not only provided a then-rare opportunity for Chicago theatre lovers to sample work from around the globe; it also planted the seeds of a local fixture: On the roof of the Red Lion Pub in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Barbara Gaines directed Henry V as the first production of what would become Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
The international festival lasted only another 10 years, but Chicago Shakes has been going strong ever since. Starting in 2000, Chicago Shakes even took on the mantle of the erstwhile festival with its celebrated World’s Stage series, which picked up the international theatre torch with aplomb. In 16 years, more than 600 artists from 16 countries—encompassing works in translation, physical theatre, musical theatre, puppetry, and solo work, among many others—have passed through the theatre, whose glass-encased lobby overlooking Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline is a big step up from their humble pub origins.
At the same time, CST’s own global reputation has grown through international touring, including invitations to perform Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006 Complete Works Festival, and at the Globe to Globe festival, presented as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
This year, CST puts its World’s Stage series on steroids in the yearlong “Shakespeare 400 Chicago,” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death with more than 850 cultural events throughout the city. In addition to theatre companies from around the world, Chicago Shakespeare is partnering with many large and small Chicago cultural institutions who are also presenting Shakespeare-inspired works, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted by maestro Riccardo Muti), the Joffrey Ballet, and the Gift Theatre Company, one of the smallest Equity theatres in the city, which is presenting Richard III through May 1. There is even “the food of love”—or at least the love of food—in the “Culinary Complete Works” program, which pairs 38 Shakespeare plays with 38 top Chicago chefs throughout the year to create dishes inspired by the Bard.
The roots of the festival, noted CST executive director Criss Henderson, go back to 2008, when the organization was selected for the Regional Theatre Tony Award. “One of the things we said that day [at the press conference] was that we envisioned, in the future, giving Chicago the opportunity to be the world’s stage in celebration of this playwright,” he recalled. “This is really the culmination of eight years of moving through the world and our city and realizing that idea.”
In selecting the participating companies, Henderson said a key criterion was, “Is this something Chicago doesn’t already have within its cultural matrix? We don’t want to replicate anything that is already here, so we were looking for new forms and new voices from other cultures.”
The festival kicked off on Jan. 27 with Measure for Measure, a coproduction of England’s Cheek by Jowl and the Pushkin Theatre of Moscow, directed by Cheek by Jowl’s co-artistic director Declan Donnellan and performed in Russian with supertitles. This spare, chilling treatment featured a series of rotating boxes and actors moving in huddled clumps across the stage, suggesting a hyper-aware security state lurking in Vienna.
At the pre-opening reception, CST’s artistic director Gaines echoed Daniel Burnham, mastermind of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, whose famous “make no little plans” exhortation gets a lot of rotation in the City of Big Shoulders. “We wanted something as big as the Columbian Exposition, across disciplines and across all the cultures of the world,” Gaines said, as waiters passed through the audience with shots of vodka.
Though the festival is in its early days, already it’s possible to see the thematic web of connective tissues holding up its gigantic corpus—from how works in translation reimagine Shakespeare’s world to how the stories from more than 400 years ago still resonate with contemporary conflicts.
For the international companies, the festival provides an opportunity to showcase traditional performance styles and aesthetics from their nation within the context of Shakespeare. For example, King Lear incorporated folk songs from Belarus, along with new scenes with Lear and Cordelia in prison suggesting life under the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko; it ran in February. (Belarus is the only European nation that still uses capital punishment, making Cordelia’s death by hanging particularly resonant.)
And coming up this fall, Shanghai Peking Opera will use traditional Chinese opera techniques in The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, inspired by Hamlet (Sept. 28–29), and India’s Company Theatre Mumbai will tackle Twelfth Night in Piya Beharupiya (Sept. 27–29). Presented in Hindi, Piya Beharupiya will be set in the colonial era in the early 1900s and use songs from rural India.
At a forum for the 14th China Shanghai International Arts Festival, Shan Yuejin, deputy head of Shanghai Peking Opera, noted that they developed their version of Hamlet (which has since toured the world) after being invited to visit Denmark’s Kronborg Castle—the setting immortalized as Elsinore in the Shakespeare tragedy. Though its source is Shakespeare, Yuejin called the resulting piece “purely Chinese Peking opera in terms of performance and artistic style,” including the use of “lengthy mournful singing and speaking” in Hamlet’s death scene before he slowly falls to the ground. “To tell a familiar story in a strange form of art is to create a new feeling,” explained Yuejin.
To Atul Kumar, Company Theatre’s artistic director, the emotions that Shakespeare evokes resonate across all cultures. “As much as joy and revelry are a signature pointer to Indian art and culture, there is also a huge dramatic inclination toward chagrin, separation, and longing,” he said. “You find these themes running through myriad folk tales, stories, legends, and religious texts of India. How I read Twelfth Night was with a lot of high drama, loud emotions, large movements—again, something that we as people of the subcontinent are known for.”
By contrast, for the artists of Belarus Free Theatre, Shakespeare isn’t something they naturally gravitated toward, let alone to any classic work. Cofounder and co-artistic director Natalia Kaliada has lived in exile in London since 2011, along with her fellow founders, Nikolai Khalezin (who adapted the text) and Vladimir Shcherban (who directed Lear), and she admitted over the phone that the company is “not interested in classics, and classics are not interested in us.” But upon receiving a commission for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the company decided that translating and adapting Lear for the Belarusian language “really met our political statements.” The language, like the company itself, is suppressed in Belarus.
Kaliada also points out that deconstructing Shakespeare makes sense, since the Bard himself “would deconstruct different stories and present them in a particular way that would still be relevant.” In early rehearsals, Kaliada recalled, director Shcherban “asked actors to completely forget about the text and not use it at all, but for them to reflect upon their life. We are interested in personal stories of people and most of our shows build up those stories even when we use existing text.”
Those recollections included stories of rebellion against parental figures, in keeping with the Lear’s themes of parent/child conflict. So while the story hews to the original, the interpolation of the Lear-Cordelia prison scenes and the overall grittiness of the production—including a very scatological interlude with Edgar—lay bare the visceral and filthy nature of the power struggle underpinning the poetry.
Other companies also put Shakespeare in the service of a political viewpoint. Mexico City’s Foro Shakespeare uses Romeo and Juliet as the inspiration for Enamorarse de un incendio, or Falling in Love in a Fire (Sept. 22–24), created in association with Chilean playwright Eduardo Pavez Goye, who is directing. Itari Marta, the director of the theatre, said in a phone interview that the play came about because, she said, “I wanted to talk about love. This is a very difficult time for my country and for all of the world. I think that my country has places that are very violent. When we started to talk about what we wanted to do with Shakespeare, we all said we wanted to talk about love.”
Instead of a straightforward take on the star-crossed lovers, Foro Shakespeare’s production incorporates multimedia to tell what Marta describes as “three little stories inside the big play”: four scriptwriters creating a television series, a young woman returning to her parents’ home after being gone for 12 years, and a still-life painter creating a portrait of his best friend’s wife. These conversations on “the phenomenon of love,” said Marta, “help to transform the point of view. Love is always in our lives. This hate that we are living is not always. We have this other story to tell.”
It’s not just the international artists who are experimenting with the Bard. Gaines’s impulse wasn’t to recreate a classic but to recombine a few into Tug of War, a two-part presentation of the six history plays. Part 1, “Foreign Fire,” encompasses Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part 1 (May 12–June 12), while “Civil Strife” presents Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3 and Richard III (Sept. 14–Oct. 9). The total run time for both parts will be six hours. “It is, quite frankly, the biggest risk I’ve ever taken,” said Gaines in a phone interview. “The trigger has been the geniuses I have watched internationally and a few American shows that have given me the guts to follow instincts and to leave fear behind.”
The other difference Gaines identified between Tug of War and past history-play cycles is that instead of kings, the history will be retold through the eyes of the common soldier. “That has never been done that I know of,” she said. “We start with a young soldier saying goodbye to his parents in his uniform and then he joins his comrades. We put the entire cast onstage, dressed as common soldiers.” And in a city like Chicago, where gun violence is never far from the headlines, Gaines has decided to do “six war plays without guns and without swords,” and a mix of classic and modern dress.
Gaines’s production will also include an onstage rock band to provide an additional contemporary edge. “We will be making a tapestry of Shakespeare’s language and some of the most beautiful songs that have been written,” she said. “A little Bach, some Mahler, Tim Buckley, Nina Simone, Richie Havens.”
Soldiers carrying the weight of battle into their personal lives can also be seen in Othello (through April 10), from English director Jonathan Munby, in a CST production. Munby will also bring his acclaimed production from Shakespeare’s Globe of The Merchant of Venice, starring Jonathan Pryce and his daughter, Phoebe, as Shylock and Jessica (Aug. 4–14). “The ideas these two plays throw up are pretty ugly and challenge us and the world we live in in a really positive way,” said Munby. “They ask us to really consider our ideas, our prejudices, and our relationship with outsiders. What kind of world do we want to create now?”
For Othello, which is cast largely with Chicago actors, Munby approached the story as “one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever written,” noting that it hits on “continued racial prejudice, not just on a national level but on a local level in Chicago,” a city where the release of the long-suppressed videotape of the shooting death of black teenager Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer unleashed mass protests last fall. “I am not referencing it in the production, but we want to make sure that the two major locations have a metaphorical sense to it,” said Munby, adding, “Our Venice will look like D.C., with a female Duke.”
Munby, who previously directed Julius Caesar in 2013 for Chicago Shakespeare, said he enjoys “the difference I find with American actors and American audiences. American actors are unafraid to go there. They will go to the heart of darkness in a piece. Sometimes I have to protect them from themselves.”
Yet even in the heart of that darkness, Gaines noted that seeing work by international artists—some of whom have survived imprisonment (like the Belarus Free Theatre) and worse—continues to inspire her as much as more traditional treatments. At the opening reception for Measure for Measure, Gaines expressed her wish that the festival will help provide “light in a very dark world.”
By birthing this ambitious Shakespeare-inspired festival, CST also hopes to provide balm for a city reeling from financial difficulties, political recriminations, and racial tension. “We have been trying to look up and out as the city has been looking up and out,” said Henderson. “We want to make sure that the headlines of today’s paper do not in any way dim the extraordinary light that exists within this city. Arts and culture are a part of that.”
Kerry Reid is a freelance arts journalist and critic in Chicago.
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