Montana Shakespeare in the Parks presents performances of "All's Well That Ends Well" on Tuesday, Sept. 2, and "Macbeth" on Wednesday, Sept. 3, on the University of Montana Oval. Performances begin at 6 p.m. and are free and open to the public. Audience members are encouraged to bring chairs and blankets to the performance. If it rains, the plays will be performed in the University Theatre.
Gloomy intensity or surreal optimism? Problem play or cursed play? Unintended consequences or questionable conclusions? Pick your poison next week when Montana Shakespeare in the Parks presents one of Shakespeare's best-known plays, "Macbeth," alongside one of his least-known, "All's Well That Ends Well."
Both plays are chock-full of pithy one-liners, convoluted drama, glorious poetry - in short, all the good stuff that we expect from Shakespeare. But each, in its own way, presents challenges as well.
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First, on Tuesday, comes the Problem Play: "All's Well That Ends Well." It's called a problem because, in the oeuvre of Shakespeare, it doesn't fit neatly into one of the playwright's broad categories of plays: It is too serious to be considered a pure comedy; yet too frivolous to count as a tragedy. It is morally ambiguous, convoluted and more than a little bit implausible. More than one critic has noted that the play's title ought to end with a question mark.
Here we have the story of Helena, a classy woman of humble origins who falls in love with a prince, Bertram. Bertram, alas, is obsessed with the established social order, and has no interest in marriage anyway ("A young man married is a man that's marred," he declares). But after Helena saves the king's life, she is granted the right to marry any man she chooses, and she picks Bertram.
Duty-bound, Bertram grudgingly marries Helena. Then, at the urging of his roguish friend Parolles, he promptly flees to the wars in Italy. Once there, he writes to Helena that he won't acknowledge their marriage until she can produce his family's seal ring (which he wears on his own finger) and his begotten son.
Helena still won't be rebuffed. She contrives to fool Betram into sleeping with another woman, and then sneaks into his bed in the dark, where she steals the ring and sets into motion the production of said son.
They live happily ever after.
No, seriously. That's pretty much how it ends. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, really, and the more you think about it, the harder it is to understand (much less respect) Betram or Helena - at least on paper. The famed American theatre director Peter Sellars referred to the sexual politics of "All's Well" as being "just as weird as you can get," and at least in the context of Shakespeare, that assertion isn't without merit.
To enjoy this play, it's best to simply roll with the fun, and remember that love works in mysterious ways.
"I think the biggest challenge is directing it and performing it in such a way that the audience manages to like both Helena and Bertram," said Kathy Jahnke, director of community relations with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. "(Bertram) is not especially likeable when you read the play, and because of that, you can't figure out why Helena would want him. So we're trying to focus people's empathy on this man who had his wife chosen for him and this woman who can't help that she fell in love with a guy who is hard to like. It's a good reminder that we don't get to pick who we fall in love with sometimes."
If that all sounds a little too ambiguous to you, maybe you'd prefer "the Cursed Play." That'd be "Macbeth," Shakespeare's most unflinchingly dark, concentrated and violent drama (don't worry parents; compared to your kid's Xbox games, this is still tame stuff).
It's called "the Cursed Play" (or "The Scottish Play," or simply "That Play") because of a long-standing theatrical superstition that holds that uttering the name of the play within the walls of a theatre at any time other than during a performance will bring bad luck. The origins of this belief are murky, but it's a superstition that practically every thespian follows today. (Abraham Lincoln declared that "nothing equals 'Macbeth.' " And remember what happened to him in a theatre.)
The play itself shows what can happen when you mess with prophesy. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: When the Scottish general Macbeth is told by three witches that he will become king, but another man's son will succeed him, Macbeth and his scheming wife set out, blades in hand, to see to it that the first prediction comes true, but not the second. Things don't go well in the end for the Macbeths.
"You can see what's going to happen in the first five minutes," Jahnke said. "It's thrilling to watch how it unfolds, but there's no questioning that fate will end up with the upper hand."
Thrilling for sure. Though it's been more than a decade since Montana Shakespeare in the Parks last performed "Macbeth," this is Shakespeare's most perennially popular play, and for good, simple reasons: It's a spooky thrill ride unparalleled by perhaps any play. Of the play's 26 scenes, all but four are set in darkness or gloom. Bloody daggers, bloody faces, the scent of blood on Lady Macbeth's hands. The play is one long trail of carnage.
Yet somehow we understand Macbeth's temptation, and trust his regret. That's the magic of Shakespeare.
"You do get the impression that (Macbeth) is not actually a bad guy, he just got stuck in this thing and couldn't get back out," Jahnke said. "In this production, the actors are really focusing on the huge consequence of choice, what our choices might do this year or what they did when Macbeth made his, and how bad choices can snowball into a million consequences. So it's really something that we can all always relate to in new ways in our lives."
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or at email@example.com.