Falsettos

Princeton Summer Theater begins its 2019 season with an ambitious production of the Tony award-winning musical Falsettos, book by James Lapine and William Finn, who also wrote the music and lyrics. Directed by PST artistic director Daniel Krane, the production opened June 20 and runs Thursdays through Sunday until June 30. The show’s nonstop music is provided by a “tiny little band,” of four musicians led by Amber Lin.

Falsettos is a story about all kinds of love—gay, straight, marital, parental, between friends. Its nonstop songs work hard to capture the evanescence of feeling, perhaps best in a moving song near the end: “Who would I be if I had not loved you? How would I know what love is?”

In the story, Marvin (played by Michael Rosas) leaves his wife Trina (Bridget McNiff) for the carefree young man, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein). Trina, left with their 10-year-old son Jason (Hannah Chomiczewski) is bitter about this, and baffled by Marvin’s insistence that what he wants is “A Tight-Knit Family” involving them all.

Marvin suggests Trina straighten herself out by seeing his psychiatrist, Mendel (Justin Ramos), who immediately falls for her. Complications ensue, and Trina’s state of mind is perfectly—hilariously—reflected in her star turn, “I’m Breaking Down.”

This first act of Falsettos, which is set in 1979, is based on a one-act play, March of the Falsettos that premiered in 1981. The second act is based on another one-act, Falsettoland, set in 1981, which premiered in 1990. The two were merged to create Falsettos in 1992. A lot changed for gay men in that intervening decade. The authors had to acknowledge AIDS (actually barely a blip in 1981), highlighted by Dr. Charlotte’s (Chamari White-Mink) prophetic song, “Something Bad is Happening.” And, in act two, the play takes a sharp turn.

The growing realization of the seriousness of Whizzer’s illness is a painful backdrop to disagreements between Trina and Marvin about Jason’s impending bar mitzvah, to be catered by Cordelia (Michelle Navis) who specializes in Jewish nouvelle cuisine. The comedy is still there, but it’s bittersweet. One of the show’s most beautifully rendered numbers is the quartet, “Unlikely Lovers,” sung around Whizzer’s hospital bed.

The cast (and crew) for PST’s college summer stock productions are primarily Princeton students and recent graduates. For the principal roles, as played by Rosas, McNiff, Edelstein, and Ramos, this constraint was inconsequential, but a bit of a handicap in casting the role of Jason. The set was well designed (Jeffrey Van Velsor) to be adaptable and interesting.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

The Three Musketeers

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey kicks off its 2019 season with a rollicking dramatic comedy adapted from the Alexander Dumas classic by popular playwright Ken Ludwig, which opened June 15 and runs through July 7.

As director, renowned fight choreographer Rick Sordelet makes good use of his experience in the swashbuckling swordplay the stage barely contains. Sitting in the front row, I was sure a rapier-wielding musketeer would end up in my lap!  

In 1625 France, the handsome young d’Artagnan (played by Cooper Jennings) and his sister Sabine (Courtney McGowan) leave their home in Gascony for Paris in search of adventure. He wants to join the famous school of musketeers, charged with defending King Louis XIII (Michael Stewart Allen) and Queen Anne (Fiona Robberson). Sabine is bound for a convent school, but disguised as d’Artagnan’s servant, gleefully finds herself embroiled in his exploits.

In Paris, d’Artagnan stumbles into the three most admired musketeers, each in turn—Athos (John Keabler), Porthos (Paul Molnar), and Aramis (Alexander Sovronsky)–offending each of them. The result is a schedule of three duels for that very night. Before d’Artagnan can be skewered, they are set upon by the minions of the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Bruce Cromer) and his guardsman Rochefort (Jeffrey M. Bender). The now four allies fight the Cardinal’s men bravely. Impressed with d’Artagnan’s fighting skills, he’s won three important friends. An assignation d’Artagnan has made with the queen’s lady-in-waiting Constance (Billie Wyatt) also turns out rather well.

The plot proceeds mostly along the story’s familiar lines, except that Ludwig has given a larger role to the women. His creation Sabine is her brother’s equal in fencing and in enthusiasm for combat. In several scenes, the women are active fighters, including Sabine, the evil Milady (Anastasia Le Gendre), and the serving wench at an inn who uses a short sword and a serving tray as shield.

With all of Ludwig’s trademark humor and love of stage chaos, there’s not a dull moment, and the 20-member cast delivers the action convincingly, with a heady mix of heroism, treachery, narrow escapes, music, and laughter. Especially fun was the somewhat dim Louis XIII. He may not be the brightest, but, boy, does he love being king! Jennings is physically perfect for the unworldly d’Artagnan. He’s a young actor, yet plays the role with perfect assurance. The “inseparable three” (Keabler, Molnar, and Sovronsky) establish distinct and interesting personalities. Special mention should be made of McGowan, who stepped in on short notice when the original actor playing Sabine broke her foot in previews. She had only a few days to prepare and performed flawlessly.

The adaptation, originally commissioned by the Bristol Old Vic in England was a tremendous hit when it premiered in 2006, a result of its judicious updating alongside its timeless evocation of loyalty and honor. “All for one and one for all!” Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Photo by Jerry Dalia

Skylight

McCarter Theatre Center closes its 2018-2019 season with David Hare’s Tony-award winning play Skylight. Directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, the play opened May 11 and runs through June 2. I’d seen the Bill Nighy – Carey Mulligan version, in which the acting was great, but I actually think I got more out of this current one.

When it premiered in 1995, Skylight was a timely exploration of a clash of values between wealthy restaurateur Tom Sergeant (in this production, played by Greg Wood) and his former lover, now a teacher in a bottom-of-the-barrel school, Kyra (Mahira Kakkar). Now in 2019, gulfs between people in terms of income, attitudes, and basic values appear even more unbridgeable. Can anyone still believe love conquers all?

The play takes place in Kyra’s very downmarket apartment (exquisitely tatty, by way of Beowulf Borritt), deprived of most luxuries, including heat. Unexpectedly, she’s visited by Tom’s 18-year-old son Edward (Zane Pais), who comes bearing dubious gifts (beer and rap music). He wants to tell her how much he’s missed her since she moved out of the family home three years earlier. She decamped when Tom’s wife discovered Kyra and Tom’s long-running affair. Edward feels abandoned by Kyra and by his mother, who has subsequently died of cancer. His immediate problem, though, is with his father, who in his unresolved guilt and grief makes his son’s life miserable.

Edward leaves and Tom arrives. Tom and Kyra circle each other, the magnetic waves of their attraction so strong they’re practically visible. Yet, like magnets with matching poles aligned, they repel each other with their words.

Witty and voluble, Tom can’t accept that Kyra lives the way she does, devoid of comforts, teaching in a school where a student spit on her, a dinner lady was mugged, and the head teacher’s cat was baked in her oven. Kyra retreats to the high-ground arguments that she’s helping society, helping the most needy kids, even if only one. While Tom acknowledges, on the surface, the nobility of her effort, he can’t stop his scorn for her choices from breaking through. “You don’t have to live this way.”

Ultimately, their attraction is too powerful, and Act One ends in a satisfying clinch. But are their differences really irreconcilable? Can they adjust, recalibrate, soften? That’s Act Two.

Wood and Kakkar , with Mann’s direction, keep the dialog blazing. Wood is all over the stage, flopping in a chair, pouring a drink, never still an instant, until something makes him alight like a dragonfly, only to dart away again. Kakkar is the steady one, not as amusing, but just as passionate. (Also, she makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, in a kitchen about three feet by three.)

For centuries, stories of impossible love have been a theater staple. This compelling McCarter production lets us confront its contemporary face. A highly satisfying theater experience!

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Gods of Comedy

Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center presents the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s delightful new play, directed by Amanda Dehnert. The Gods of Comedy opened March 16 and runs through March 31.

In a university classics department, a normal day is about to collapse into turmoil, thanks to a madcap mix of switched identities, characters who become invisible, and not-so divine intervention. Daphne Rain (played by Shay Vawn) is a bookish young classics professor entrusted by her colleague and boyfriend Ralph Sargent (Jevon McFerrin) with the priceless manuscript of the lost Euripides play, Andromeda. When the manuscript goes missing, she calls on the ancient Greek gods out of desperation. And who turns up? Dionysus and Thalia, the gods of comedy.

The boisterous Dionysus (Brad Oscar) and flirtatious Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro) turn Daphne’s life upside down as she tries to hide the manuscript’s disappearance from Ralph and their dean (Keira Naughton). Meanwhile, the dean is determined to showcase the prize that evening at a Greek-themed costume party for the school’s big donors. One of these donors is a glamorous actress named Brooklyn de Wolfe (Steffanie Leigh) who sets her sights on Ralph.

Daphne and the gods have to devise a plan to satisfy the dean and keep Ralph away from Brooklyn. A pretty effective distraction arrives in the divine personage of Ares, god of war (George Psomas). Wearing his helmet and cape and brandishing his sword, he’s mistaken for one of the party-goers, and when he intones so confidently, “I am a god,” Brooklyn naturally responds, “Yeah, that’s what all men think.”

The plot of a farce never benefits from minute dissection, but Oscar, Cannizzaro, and Psomas create such strong and entertaining characters, you willingly suspend disbelief, and the many clever touches pile up one after another, keeping the audience roaring. There are a few lulls in act two, but the pace picks up again when Dionysus and Thalia use their powers of metamorphosis to become other characters—a tangle that is baffling for the other characters and hilarious for the audience.

Vawn is sympathetic as the worried academic, simultaneously grateful for the gods’ help and dismayed at the trouble they’re causing. McFerrin is clueless, especially when under Brooklyn’s spell, and Naughton, once she dons her Artemis costume, reveals a naughty side. Psomas plays two small roles, in addition to Ares, each to perfection. And Jason Sherwood designed beautiful sets, especially for Act 2.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

photo: T. Charles Erickson

St. Patrick’s Day is Nigh

Excuse me a sec, while I run into the kitchen and check the corned beef brisket.

Ahh…

Now, as the last year has whirled by and St. Paddy’s Day once again approaches, here are my three most recent dives into the wellspring of inspiration, imagination, and experience that is Ireland.

Earlier this year, we saw on Broadway, The Ferryman, which many reviewers said was “the ticket” for the winter’s season. From the promotional pictures (below), it looks like a multigeneration family sitting around the supper table, telling rollicking Irish tales, no? It turns out the IRA is involved, and, as everyone knows, the IRA is not The Clancy Brothers. Acting was super, especially the elderly Republican aunt who can’t give up her threadbare politics.

An Irish theme turned up unexpectedly in Angel Luis Colón’s Hell Chose Me (which I reviewed here). The American protagonist, Bryan Walsh, is AWOL from Afghanistan, and the only person he thinks can help him is his difficult and uncle Sean back in Ireland. IRA legatee Sean does give him a job for a while, as an enforcer and assassin, before Bryan returns to the United States (illegally). Lots else happens in this excellent thriller, but Uncle Sean’s menacing presence haunts Bryan evermore.

At the moment I’m reading (actually listening to) Tana French’s Dublin-based best-seller, The Witch Elm. I’m only a short way in, and while I know the book has received raves, am waiting for it to pick up steam. One of the characters is a genealogist, a profession I can relate to, who says that in the old days, people came to him out of curiosity about their Irish ancestors, and now with DNA evidence in hand, they come to him to find out who they really are.

Posts for past March 17s have focused on wonderful books from Irish writers, including the fantastic Irish crime/thriller writers, not only Tana French, but Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville too.

But, excuse me, the corned beef is done. Now have to spread a mix of brown sugar and dry mustard on top for a final twenty-minute bake while I stir the potatoes and cook up the onions, cabbage, and sour cream. In delicious anticipation . . .

And, check out Janet Rudolph’s list of St. Patrick’s Day Mysteries.

Graphic by Barbara A. Lane from Pixabay.

Weekend Entertainments, 2/1-2/3

In Washington, D.C., summers, we’d go to a movie theater to cool off. You may be considering the same strategy this weekend just to warm up! If so, here’s my take on two movies currently on view and one riotous play sparking the New Jersey theater scene. Let’s take the serious one first.

KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo, If Beale Street Could talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

When James Baldwin published the book this movie is based on back in 1974, it was out of sync with the times and not a success. Americans had turned attention from their civil rights concerns, distracted by Watergate and the windup of the Vietnam War, perhaps, or perhaps it was another sorry indicator of how short our national attention span is for issues that defy quick solutions.

Now writer/director Barry Jenkins has timed the book’s film version perfectly (trailer). All the issues Beale Street raises remain relevant, and our persistent racial injustices are once again top-of-mind. This is a love story with many threads, and each is knotty, whether the love is between a young man (played by Stephan James) and woman (KiKi Layne, the film’s gentle narrator), between parents and their daughter, or between an incarcerated father and his pre-school son, living apart. The acting is all top-notch, and I particularly enjoyed Tish’s parents, Colman Domingo and Regina King, who doesn’t have to say anything to reveal her heart to you.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences: 69%.

Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie

As a kid, I was a big Laurel and Hardy fan, and this Jon S. Baird film, written by Jeff Pope, about the duo’s late-stage career, is necessarily bittersweet (trailer). They’re approaching the top of the hill they’re about to go over. Genius British comic Steve Coogan is Stan, the writer of most of the skits and bits, and John C. Reilly, in an unbelievably natural fatsuit and rubber chin is American comic Oliver Hardy.

Although it’s a movie about two slapstick comedians and about what it means to have and be a partner, some of the funniest moments come from the sniping between Ollie’s devoted third wife Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Stan’s fourth wife Ida (Nina Arianda). The two women can’t stand each other, but even Ida softens when Ollie’s precarious health is endangered. Well worth the price of a ticket!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 88%.

Noises Off

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is presenting this non-stop Michael Frayn comedy on stage through February 3. Directed by Sarna Lapine, you may run out of breath laughing well before the end of Act I and the absurdities continue to pile up.

In case you’re not familiar with the story, in Act I, a lackluster theater company is in the final rocky rehearsal for a show called Nothing On, which takes place in an English country house. The house is supposed to be empty, but is soon filled with people trying not to be found there. During the cast’s conversation between scenes, you learn about several ongoing love affairs and problems among them.

In Act II, the set is turned around and, though you hear some of the play dialog on the other side of the wall, the action is backstage, mostly in pantomime, as the lovers quarrel, try to make up, and generally behave badly. There’s a pause before Act III, and the set turns again to the front. Now it’s the play’s last performance, and situations have spiralled totally out of control. Sheer mayhem!

Ellen Harvey plays the housekeeper in the play-within-the-play, Jason O’Connell the homeowner and Kathleen Chloe his wife; Michael Crane is the realtor and Adrianna Mitchell his somewhat dim would-be paramour (when the show is falling apart, she keeps delivering lines that no longer fit what’s happening); Philip Goodwin is an aging actor whose sobriety must be constantly monitored; Gopal Divan is the play director, Phillip Taratula the stage manager, and Kimiye Corwin his assistant. I named them all, because they were all so good!

The Two River ticket office online; or call 732 345 1400.

The Niceties

The title of this political drama by playwright Eleanor Burgess is ironic, as few niceties are demonstrated. Instead, the play, which had its opening night at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre on January 19 and runs through February 10, is an increasingly intense verbal duel between its two characters. As directed by Kimberly Senior, the tension never falters.

White college history professor Janine (played by Lisa Banes) is trying to help her African American student Zoe (Jordan Boatman) improve a paper that sets out a radical reinterpretation of the circumstances of the Revolutionary War. Janine isn’t willing to accept websites as authoritative sources, and Zoe isn’t willing to accept the conventional sources that ignore so much—regarding the lives of the slaves, especially.

They both make cogent arguments, but their disagreement is in part a matter of frame of reference. Janine is arguing from the point of view of a political historian, to whom the thoughts and actions of leaders who have left a paper trail constitute “history.” Zoe is arguing for more of a social history approach that includes the lives of all people, even those who did not and could not write their own stories. To Zoe, a few mentions of these other experiences won’t do it; she wants a panoramic approach that seeks to understand it all. The argument over Zoe’s essay soon turns personal and has significant fallout for them both.

Banes and Boatman have been doing this show since August, first at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, then at The Manhattan Theatre Club, and they have polished their performances to a fine degree. Banes epitomizes the condescension of the professor explaining how the world works, and Boatman the arrogance of youth, convinced that even her most extreme positions are true and right. As a result, the characters they play excel in talking past each other, and if there’s a profound message for society today, it’s the need to learn to listen, especially to people who view the world differently.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Production photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Jon Barker, Erin Partin, and John Keabler; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a powerful new production of The Winter’s Tale, a play that mixes darkness and light, the tragic and the playful. Directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, it premiered December 8 and runs through December 30.

A cast of 20 is called upon to present Shakespeare’s story of how jealousy can overcome loyalty, friendship, judgment, how destructive it is to stick stubbornly to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary, and how, in the long run, the only redemption may be through love. Director Monte says this complex play is “part allegory, part searing drama, part pastoral comedy and part uplifting and moving romance.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia (played by Jon Barker), and his pregnant wife, Hermione (Erin Partin), are entertaining Leontes’s longtime friend from Bohemia, Polixines (John Keabler), when Leontes gets it in his head like a worm in an apple that Hermione and Polixines are more to each other than they ought to be. Learning the king means to do him harm, Polixines and Leontes’s courtier Camillo (Patrick Toon) flee Sicily, which only confirms Leontes of the couple’s guilt.

Leontes imprisons his distraught wife, who gives birth to a daughter that the wise woman Paulina (Marion Adler) begs him to see and claim, but he will not. He insists that his general Antigonus (Raphael Nash Thompson) take the baby away and leave it in some desolate place that it survive or die as the fates decree. Reluctantly, Antigonus complies.

Leontes puts his wife on trial, a proceeding interrupted by a message from the oracle of Apollo, who declares Hermione’s innocence. The message also says his son will die and Leontes will have no heir until he is reunited with his lost daughter. The death of the boy convinces him of the oracle’s truth, but the death of her son is too much for Hermione, and she too is struck dead.

Antigonus leaves the babe in a Bohemian wood and, in theater’s most famous stage direction, “exits, chased by a bear.” The infant is discovered by kindly shepherds.

Sixteen years pass, the character Time tells us, and the beautiful girl-child Perdita (Courtney McGowan) has fallen in love with Florizel (Ryan Woods), son of Polixines, though she does not know he’s a prince. The play moves into broad comedy with the country folk, but eventually the plan is made to go to Sicily, where sadness still reigns.There, everyone reunites and theater magic happens, and what was dark is made light again.

The entire cast is strong, with special mention needed for Jon Barker, who can convey every drop of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines through his delivery and unerring body language. Erin Partin and Marion Adler (who received applause for one particularly fiery speech) were also noteworthy. Seamus Mulcahy (Charley’s Aunt in the theater’s most recent production) shows his genius for physical comedy in the secondary role of shepherd. Raphael Nash Thompson and Patrick Toon provided restrained dignity in contrast to Barker’s erraticism.

A simple set is needed to accommodate two countries and numerous scenes, and Brittany Vasta has produced gorgeous, chilly white backgrounds that radiate winter and allow the beautiful costumes of Nikki Delhomme to provide the color. Other production credits to Tony Galaska (lighting), Danielle Liccardo (dance consultant), and Denise Cardarelli (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable rom NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

This is the third season for McCarter Theatre Center’s most recent and most joyous version of A Christmas Carol, its delightful return to Christmas in the Age of Dickens. Opening night was December 7, and this sparkler of a show, based on playwright David Thompson’s adaptation and directed by Adam Immerwahr, runs through December 29.

Immerwahr’s intent when he took on this holiday staple was to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.” His version is filled with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era.” Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play,” whose music was composed by the late Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show exemplifies McCarter’s goal of celebrating creativity, community, and diversity in the presence onstage—and before the curtain, in the lobby and theater aisles—of a cheerful community ensemble of 26 adults and a dozen children. The entire audience is involved in singing the opening carol, and probably no one in the audience avoided beaming and foot-tapping during the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party, with its exuberant, full-cast dance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) has never been more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, is as lively as ever, bringing Dickens’s memorable characters wonderfully to life.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him how others, especially the Cratchits, live; and the Ghost of Christmas Future presents a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective and delivers my favorite line, the sententious “I wear the chain I forged in life.I made it link by link and yard by yard.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a reformed man.

Underscoring the production’s goal of community engagement is the scheduling of a sensory-sensitive, relaxed matinee performance on December 28, to enable a wider range of people to enjoy a live performance. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

A Sea of Blistered Tongues

Richard III, Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt made an absorbing presentation last week, here in Princeton, based on his new book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. What Shakespeare has to say about pretty much any domain of human behavior is worth thinking about, and Greenblatt’s current preoccupation was clearly shared by his receptive audience.

He edged into the topic by describing how Shakespeare has been used in many countries and settings as a screen on which people may project their views about their own leaders—views that very often would cost them their freedom or more, if stated directly. Shakespeare’s notable tyrants—Macbeth, Coriolanus, Lear, and, especially, Richard III—become stand-ins for narcissistic demagogues across time and geography.

He highlighted the would-be king (and real-life character) Jack Cade, who appears in 2 Henry VI, as a populist leader deploying eerily familiar tactics. In Shakespeare’s dialog, Cade makes blatantly absurd promises to the rabble he incites, to wit:

“There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny;

The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops;

And I will make it a felony to drink small [weak] beer. . . .

There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score;

And I will apparel them all in one livery,

That they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.”

This peroration is followed by what Greenblatt supposed (correctly in my case) was the only line most people can quote from that particular play, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Greenblatt says that, while the cheering rabble could not have truly believed these extravagant promises, their support for Cade was unwavering. Not until scheming Macbeth is exposed as a regicide and murderer, does Malcolm regret his former loyalty, saying, “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, was once thought honest.”

Shakespeare’s tyrants arise in eras when, as the book blurb summarizes, “Cherished institutions seem fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules.” Such fraught times inspired Shakespeare, as did the tyrants’ narcissistic personalities and the “cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on” surrounding them. These same forces, personalities, and motives give his work continued relevance.

Greenblatt sounded a discouraging note in saying that, while Shakespeare was brilliant at portraying causes and effects in his history plays, he does not point a way to solutions. “There aren’t any good ones,” he said. Yet, remarkably, civilization survived these conflicts and setbacks. On a more positive note, he concluded that what Shakespeare also teaches us is, “We are not alone.”

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