Thursday, December 17, 2009

Intermission Talk: Spend the Holidays with Will Shakespeare

bu Tony Vellela

So you missed Jude Law in "Hamlet." Pity - it was a riveting production, worthy of being filmed by HBO or PBS or ... I guess those are the only options, even though there are about two hundred million cable channels. After seeing this great play, I decided to star in my own [slightly updated] Shakespeare production, "Two Gentlemen IN Verona."

During a recent trip to Italy, my photographer Simone Martelli and I spent some time soaking in the aura of Will Shakespeare's fantasized home away from home - Italia. While this city's name appears in the title of the Two Gents comedy, it is the most famous love story of all time - "Romeo & Juliet" - that lives here.


Simone Martelli, photographer


Yes, they are fictional characters in a play, but evidence exists that they are based on young lovers from the fifteenth century whose tragic romance evolved into a much-beloved folk tale of its day. Many Shakespeare scholars refer to Arthur Brooke's 1562 moralistic narrative poem "The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet" as the Bard's source, but Veronese locals filled us in on the real scoop. About thirty years earlier [1531], a short novel by Luigi Da Porto gave the kids their first names, and the following year a Veronese poet named Matteo Bandello expanded on the same story. It was translated into French and then into English, which may be how the scribe heard the word. These incarnations placed some blame on the doomed lovers, for being hasty and impulsive and rash and all the other kinds of behavior that moralistic adults think teens should be punished for. Shakespeare's lovers, however, do not fit into the traditional patterns of tragedy - their fate is visited on them because of exterior events beyond their control. But you knew that.

This you may not know, unless you've also been there. When approaching 23 Via Cappelo, you will see that the short arched street-level underpass is plastered with notes affixed to its walls, messages of thanks to Juliet for sharing with the world her tale of love. This three-story stone building, which features the Cappello family crest inside the tiny courtyard, was the home of that real-life family, and operated as an inn. Their political 'rivals' in the 13th and 14th centuries were the San Bonifacio family, and the story goes that R & J were in truth, young members of these clans. The San Bonifacios were kin to the Montagues, who were loyal to la Scala familia [yes, THAT Scala, as in La Scala Opera House].

Inside 23, a quaint museum houses cultural and historical artifacts connected to young Julia, called Giulietta [like Masina, who was born nearby, outside of Bologna]. And on the side of the building, a balcony juts over the courtyard from the second floor, providing today's [doomed?] young lovers the best photo op of their lives.

Yes, they died - the Shakespeare girl and the Cappelo girl - and a short walk away, the tomb where the Verona lass laid in state is kept below ground in an earthen dimly-lit crypt at the Capucine convent. You can take pictures, but you can't do it lying down, and you can't touch. We may have Lord Byron to thank for that - he reportedly stole a chunk of marble from the tomb because he was so enamored with Verona.

Even in Byron's day, the well-preserved Arena, one of Italy's best surviving Roman amphitheatres, hosted crowd-pleasing performances, and from July through September of every year, opera events continue to be held. If you stand at the rear of the stage area, and your friend sits off to the side, in the uppermost row of seating, he will hear you, unless the twentieth-century roadway behind you drowns you out. However, a trip inside the rooms above the Arena will acquaint you with the details of this marvelous piece of antiquity, its walls and display cases replete with drawings, sketches, sculptures and other fascinating examples of life among the ruins, before they were.

Veronese in the know will tell you that tourism connected to Shakespeare is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it dates back at least to the 1700s, when Grand Tours guided the literari with the wherewithal, to hit the road on excursions that brought the locales of the fictional favorites to life - a much earlier version of those bus tours that point out the exteriors of the New York places where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer hung out. Today, visitors can do much more than pound the fabled pavements, although that alone is worth the trip, where you can savor the feel, the colors, the sounds and the atmosphere of Fair Verona. Locals will eagerly direct you to a side street or alleyway, where you can settle comfortably in at a family-owned trattoria or taverna, serving traditional fare such as roast leg of wild boar, pumpkin soup served in a bowl scooped from half a loaf of brown bread, pear cake and toasted barley coffee, that the feuding families would have partaken. Perhaps strolling minstrels strumming lyrical melodies and harmonies on their girondas would have tempered tempers.

On Book

And if creating harmony with a loved one is on your wish list for the coming holidays, up to and including Valentine's Day, consider a Shakespeare gift. If you feel shaky about Shakespeare, there's Cynthia Greenwood's "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare Plays," a compendium to launch anyone into the world of the Old Globe.

For those more at home on the lit-up side of the footlights, John Basil's "Will Power: How to Act Shakespeare in 21 Days" walks you briskly from day one of rehearsal through opening night, with stops along the way to explore definitions, pronunciations, punctuations and recommendations. The Royal Shakespeare Company's complete collection of his plays serves as a worthy companion.

And different versions of the individual playscripts offer different special features. The Arden volumes are heavy on detailed information and notes, sometimes taking up more than half of every page, to make absolutely sure you understand every little thing. The Folger versions are often thought to be the best acting texts. And compilations of soliloquies and monologues ordered by gender provide any actor of any age with audition material that has survived through the ages.

Finally, former RSC artistic director and chief executive Adrian Noble will introduce his newest work, "How To Do Shakespeare" at a special event at the Drama Bookshop on Tuesday, January 12 from 5 to 7 PM. His credentials include a prior stint at the Bristol Old Vic, and he will discuss technique, performance styles, Shakespearean language and the place of wit and humor in the timeless canon.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies." His award-winning play "Admissions" has been published by Playscripts. His feature reporting has appeared in dozens of publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Reader's Digest, USA Today and Rolling Stone. Mr. Vellela is on the faculty of HB Studio in New York City.

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