Monkeys are smart. Though they haven't created cars or trains or weapon, they are educated through simplicity. They flourish on what they have, and if something doesn't work, they don't give up, but they evolve to overcome it. Like monkeys, Shakespeare had no thesaurus, no dictionary, no laptop and no editor. But when he came to a spot where he was at loss for words, he made up his own words. Through practice, perseverance and certainly trial and error, he created works that will last forever.

I am a 13 year old kid who is trying to read and attend live performances of all 37 Shakespeare plays (plus 3 possible collaborations) in 2 years. This is a record of my experiences.

I am now a 19 year old college freshmen at Northwestern University, pursuing a degree in Theatre. The spark of love for Shakespeare that began this blog has grown into a roaring fire. That fire burns a little bit brighter each day. This is where it all began.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Shotgun Players presents HAMLET-- 1901 Ashby Ave, South Berkely, CA. June 17th, 2016

Hamlet. The proverbial capstone in the arc of theater history. From Olivier to Branagh, countless great actors have taken on the titular role. While the play itself has become everything from a means of entry into the world of theater for many disgruntled high school English students to a favorite illustrative example in the writings of world-class scholars, it has also been seen just about every possible interpretation staged more than once. It is therefore rare, especially for frequent theater goers, to see a Hamlet that pushes the boundaries.

(Notice how the graphic changes)
Against all odds, the Shotgun Players Hamlet does just that. There is no star performance to review here. At the outset of the show, the names of the actors are all packed into Yorick’s skull. The actors line up on stage, behind a lineup of scripts which list the different characters. An audience member in the front row picks an actors name out of the skull, drawing for each character in succession. When an actor is assigned a role, they grab the script, and quickly dart off stage to get into costume. That is the beauty of this Hamlet. All the actors know all the roles, and which one they play is decided nightly. There’s no end to the possible Hamlets we might see. One night he might be biracial, struggling with his identity as well as his love for a squat old man named Ophelia. The next she might be a tall blonde, seeking to kill her young, Hispanic aunt/mother, Claudius. The cast is full of standouts, but as you might see an entirely different show, I cannot possibly review any single performance. And that’s the beauty of it. As the brilliant director Mark Jackson writes in his Director’s note, “the endless flood of diverse possibilities pouring out of [this] Hamlet might be far more interesting, surprising, and entertaining than any single version.” Much like all great productions in the past have told a unique story with the same words, this Hamlet manages to tell a unique story every single night.

While certainly a night to remember due to theatrical merit, Shotgun Players presents Hamlet is also strangely reaffirming. For the true Shakespearean, it is an invigorating reminder that even 400 years after his death, the work of the bard holds countless more possibilities for performance still waiting to be explored.

It runs through July, and if you’re like me, you’ll be seeing it more than once.

Tickets available here:

Monday, April 18, 2016

Richard III by The Gift Theatre, in collaboration with Steppenwolf Theatre Company -- Steppenwolf Garage, April 16th, 2016


The word escapes Michael Patrick Thornton lips and instantly pierces the hum of congenial conversation between the actors. The party stops instantly, each actor freezing entirely, even mid-kiss. Mr. Thornton alone remains operational. Slowly, deliberately he begins to roll his wheelchair forward, surveying the audience like the most patient of predators. As he moves between his colleagues, the other players in his court, his eyes flash a subtle mixture of grim delight and sneering disgust. “Now is the winter of our discontent,” he begins, choosing a single audience member to direct each line to. This is a Richard III devoid of any shred of compassion or remorse that Shakespeare may have allowed for. This is not a Richard we are meant to pity. This is a Richard we are meant to fear.


He bellows at the culmination of his speech. The word shatters the stillness in the air as the other actors take a collective breath of life. Reanimated and yet blissfully unaware of the snake in their garden, we watch helplessly as Thornton’s sickly sweet, highly sociopathic Richard III begins to swat them like flies.

Part of the Shakespeare 400 celebration, The Gift Theatre’s production of Richard III at Steppenwolf runs until May 1st.  One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare 400 is that it is providing a venue for the plethora of theater-makers in Chicago to tell each of their own individual stories through the Bard’s timeless work. Mr. Thornton, co-founder and artistic director of the Gift, is quite remarkable in his performance. Having suffered a spinal stroke that initially paralyzed in 2003, he has worked his way back to general wheelchair mobility and even some vertical mobility. He founded the Gift theatre to provide opportunities for disabled actors.

Yet, unlike most renditions of the murderous king, Mr. Thornton’s Richard is not defined by his illness. Despite his actual disability, he plays a Richard who does not lend himself to pity. Showing no fear of audience interaction, Thornton often chooses to deliver his lines very deliberately to individual spectators. He shows himself to be a social chameleon, winning over an unsuspecting Elizabeth, played by Jenny Avery, with an innocuous grin. He manipulates Kieth Neagle, who turns in a slimy yet imposing Buckingham by seeming like the picture of an honest partner in crime. Yet, when it comes time to betray both, he assumes a look of the most pitiless apathy.

In a play that centers around Richard’s transformation, told through a string of brief and often one sided interactions with supporting characters, there are some pitfalls of a sociopathic protagonist. He becomes more one-dimensional, ending the play in more or less the same mind set as he starts it. Some scenes feel irrelevant, like a rehashing of what we already know about him: he doesn’t care about killing people.

This was counteracted by frequent, mid-scene calls of “STOP”, in which Mr. Thornton would deliver a monologue spliced together from elsewhere in the show. Rather than see an actor tell the story of Richard III, it becomes an actor playing a character who is telling us the story directly. Though at times this is quite effective, at times it feels gimmicky. Regardless, Mr. Thornton is a remarkable talent. Though he suffers from a real-world disability, he puts on a performance that is not defined by it. It would have been easy for him to act as though Richard’s story was his own, and to make the play entirely about the way disabled people are treated. But The Gift Theatre’s work is far more potent than that. It creates opportunities for disabled actors to perform independent of their conditions, not to showcase them. Thornton achieves this in full, his disability coming second to his performance, and thereby truly escaping the confines of the real world by way of his art.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Measure for Measure by Cheek by Jowl, in collaboration with Moscow's Pushkin Theater -- Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 1/27/2016

Shakespeare’s works are revered for many reasons, but perhaps none more-so than the beauty of his language. Phrases like “to be, or not to be” and “All the world’s a stage” have become staples of colloquial jargon. But can his work transcend even that, and still retain its cultural potency?

Declan Donnellan’s production of Measure For Measure proves conclusively that it can. Donnellan, who has risen to prominence in the art world for his work as joint-artistic director of the UK based international theater company Cheek by Jowl, just premiered his latest work; an all-Russian production of Measure for Measure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. While no stranger to working with the bard in Russian (he actually formed a Russian company of actors in Moscow in 1999), this represents Cheek by Jowl’s first collaboration with Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre.

                Known as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, Measure for Measure defies its billing as a comedy to explore adult themes of politics, sex, power and temptation. The play is noted (spoilers) for its quite unsatisfactory lack of a reasonable conclusion. Essentially it spirals down in a tidal wave of corruption and manipulation until suddenly everyone just gets married and the play concludes. Shakespeare was exploring the bounds of the comedic format, and the result is extremely dark.

Rykov with his bass as Khalilulina dances by

                Donnellan’s production takes advantage of the dark comedy, using a technique called ‘sparrow-flocking’ in which the cast is onstage at all times, running from corner to corner and leaving behind players needed for each scene. Thus characters watch themselves be betrayed in a haunting commentary on abuse of political power. This satire culminates in Petr Rykov, as Claudio, sitting in the center of the stage, strumming an upright bass as he awaits death. As he plays a morose yet bouncy Russian folk tune as the rest of the cast dances around him. The theme of dancing to represent struggles for power and death is a recurring one throughout the play, with the Duke (Alexander  Arsentyev) teaming up with an exceptionally crazed Barandine (Igor Teplov) while contemplating his condition in prison.

Alexey Rakhmanov as Pompey dragging Anastasia Lebedeva across the street as an act of defiance, as the 'offstage' duke watches in horror from the ensemble.

                Anna Khalilulina’s Isabella is also far from orthodox, wearing a strikingly form fitting habit and (as is revealed in a tense near-rape scene with Andrei Kuzichev’s Angelo) no underwear. The production oscillates between encouraging audience participation and unfolding scenes through a voyeuristic lens. This is accentuated by an unusually open set, extending to the back of the theater, exposing blackness. Five large red cubes, in a semi-rectangle, comprise the only set fixtures. During the Duke’s aforementioned dance, they revolve around to show different characters lit by Red-light district-esc LEDs.

A chilling Kuzichev as Angelo

                Donnellan’s production does not even need the subtitles hanging above it to be understood. His intentions are clearly demonstrated thanks to an exceptionally well-rounded ensemble performance and convincing costumes. His actors show dedication and focus throughout the play, as blocking is crucial to such a show, though little to none of it can be marked. Whether or not you have any familiarity with the play, and if you speak little or no Russian, this is still a must see. Scan the Sparknotes in the cab over, and don’t miss Cheek by Jowl’s Measure for Measure at Chicago Shakespeare Theater as the kick off the city wide, year-long celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Henry IV by Donmar Warehouse -- St. Ann's Warehouse, 12/13/2015

Brooklyn, NEW YORK -- After a blissful stroll along the water in New York’s Dumbo district, I strode into Saint Ann’s Warehouse with an invigorating blend of Zen and zest. Stepping into the venerable old building, I was met with a plain yet tasteful lobby. Passing through the curtain to the stage, however, I found myself on what could have been the set for an episode of Orange is the New Black.

Walter on the program

            Donmar Warehouse’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, an all-female production set in prison, took place on a basketball court. The audience surrounds the stage on all four sides, as the actors duke it out with boxing gloves and relax on toy-plastic furniture. The effect is to allow Shakespeare to transcend time in place. Though produced in Britain, this show is ideally suited to the current America. At a time when the nation is heading into a transition of leadership, there is perhaps no more fitting time to introduce a story of a young degenerate-turned-liberator rising to take the reins of leadership from an indecisive yet benevolent predecessor. Though the coming presidential election is far from a sure thing, Hillary Rodham Clinton has opened the door to a bright future of female leadership regardless. America is ready for a new wave of leaders, much like the ones who enact this epic story. Harriet Walter’s (King Henry) stoicism in the face of adversity is clearly reflected in the resolute mask she uses to address her subjects. Only when the public eye is averted does she expose the weight that leading a nation has mounted on her shoulders. Her sparkling performance highlights both sides of the coin experienced by a King (Or Queen). She confidently delivers her lines with the stillness and poise that only an actor who has earned her stripes over a career of standing center stage.

            Sporting a Chelsea jersey and beats headphones, Claire Dunne (Prince Hal) provided a cunning and charming prince. Her resilient spark flickered towards Mrs. Walter at first, and, in an instantly relatable moment to anyone who has suffered through teen angst, grew to a flame when it was met by a stern vacancy from her progenitor. This, along with a string of cocaine packets (this is still a prison, after all) is what pushes her, almost heart-breakingly towards Sophie Stanton (Falstaff). Because of Phyllida Lloyd’s directorial choice to employ this pronounced metaphor, Hal’s addiction, Falstaff becomes a far less likeable character. The play seemed to center more on Hal learning to love her father than falling out of love with Falstaff.

Dunne (top) defeating Anouka (bottom)

            Despite Falstaff’s receding somewhat into the periphery of the story, Ms. Dunne and Mrs. Walter provide more than enough depth to satisfy Hal’s growth. It helps that the two look eerily similar, enough to be mother and daughter. There is a poignant beauty in seeing Henry’s face, without its cynical worry lines, reflected in a mirror of youthful exuberance. One represents reality, the other dreams. Their scenes would have been mesmerizing even without words.
            An incredibly strong supporting cast, highlighted by a fiery Jade Anouka as Hotspur, and a host of gritty prison stereotypes yield a riveting atmosphere. Transitions are provided by Kanye West and AC/DC, while the map of the battlefield is drawn across the stage in spray paint. The play is intended as a play within a play, with the actors playing inmates playing characters. There are times when Lloyd goes so far as to have a complete break in action as characters from other scenes rush onstage to clear a fray or settle a disagreement. At one point, Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan) breaks down entirely and goes off on a tangential monologue about not being heard, before running off stage. Mrs. Walter hurries on stage with guards, retrieves her, and then scorns the actors for going off script. “Stick to the Shakespeare,” she warns Stanton, before sitting in the audience to watch the rest of the scene.

Stanton and co.

           While a prison alarm and lineup at the end of the play proves haunting, to break up the action mid-scene only serves to jar the audience out of the story. Suddenly I found myself wondering about all these implied subplots and confused over the characters’ exterior roles rather than returning to the world of Hal and Henry. It was an unnecessary gimmick that was not needed to assist the brilliance of the cast.

            I would advise anyone reading this to get tickets if possible, but unfortunately I was lucky enough to catch the final performance. None-the-less, this remains one of the better shows I have seen all year, and speaks to the continued brilliance of Dame Harriet Walter, who continues to leave an illustrious legacy as one of Britain’s brightest stars of the stage.