All the Bard's Words, a gig & my Chanukah album

Weird Gifts of the Pandemic

Early in the Pandemic Lockdown, I was prattling on Facebook about wanting to read a play aloud. To my utter astonishment, my English friend Emily Carding (1), who is a real bona fide actor who did Shakespeare stage work with Mark Rylance and everything, suggested we put together a group to read A Winter’s Tale, so that she could blow off some steam ranting and raving as the jealous King Leontes, and I would make a great Paulina.

Once I stopped hyperventilating, I got a few friends together, and we Zoomed a reading that was so much fun that we decided to try to make it weekly.

Nine months later, All the Bards Words (Seriously - ALL of Them has made it through much of the canon: major and minor, comical, tragical, historical and pastoral. We are 11 Regulars, with 2 stand-bys in case someone can’t make it, or we decide to do Henry IV, Part 2 again. And these people, who mainly didn’t know each other when we began, have turned into a tight little community who celebrate each other’s birthdays (usually by letting them play the lead), encourage each other through tight times, and admire each other’s new dog pictures.

This has been another of those Weird Gifts of the Pandemic. In the Before Times, Delia & I had play readings in our living room. But they were composed of whoever happened to be around. While it would certainly have been possible, it would never have occurred to us to put together a regular group comprised of people from anywhere and everywhere: a professor of Theater in Boston and of Spanish & Queer Studies in Ohio, a professional actor in L.A. (Michael Hovance), the head of Comics at Columbia U., an actor in Toronto (the amazing Margo MacDonald) and her Drag King partner, one “Titus Androgynous,” along with a golden clutch of other reprobates with a fabulous ear for iambic pentameter (2).

What are your own unexpected Gifts of the Pandemic?

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We meet on Saturdays. So, just couple of hours ago, we finished reading Othello. I’m still reeling from the experience of all the bard’s words.

When we began, my friend Nick insisted that he was a reincarnation of Will Kempe, and only wanted the comic roles. Falstaff Forever! we cried, and enjoyed them all.

Will Kemp Elizabethan Clown Jig.jpg
Elizabethan actor Will Kempe quit Shakespeare’s troupe because he could make more money off a bet that he could dance the jig from one end of the kingdom to the other. Would I make this stuff up? #strangerthanfiction

But somewhere along the way, Nick found his gravitas. His Othello today was heartbreaking: an older man, a soldier who does one thing and does it well, all unprepared for a girl’s love; a trusting man easily turned inside out by “honest Iago.”

Maybe it’s because we read the play uncut that so many nuances came out, and difficult characters became more clear. I have no question now as to what Iago’s “issue” is: He is Jealousy incarnate. He’s profoundly jealous of Othello for being admired for being so good at what he does that even the racist Venetians are willing to forgive him for being a Moor and adore him as their general. And did Othello choose him, Iago, a seasoned soldier, as his lieutenant? No! The Great Man chose Cassio. Because he knows somehow that Iago is second-rate. And by the way, has the Moor been shtupping Iago’s wife Emilia (brilliantly played by Emily - again, when you don’t cut any of her lines, she’s a character with a real arc! Margo’s sociopathic, charming, blisteringly intelligent, quick Iago was riveting - she and Emily have incredible chemistry, which really worked for them as husband & wife here)? To destroy Othello, Iago chooses to bring him down to his level - to poison him with jealousy - in a way, to turn him into himself and watch him burn.

At the last minute our Designated Desdemona couldn’t make it, so I was asked to give up my roles as various interchangeableVenetian noblemen and play her. People were impressed that I could do that with no prep; but I realize I’ve thought a lot about many Shakespearean roles over the years; particularly ones like Desdemona, who can so easily be played as one-dimensional, a Nice Girl, a victim. Taking cues from the script, I did her as a great noblewoman of Venice; though young, she’s been running her father’s house (listening to Othello’s stories of his adventures until “the house affairs would draw her thence; / Which ever as she could with haste dispatch, / She’s come again, and with a greedy ear/ Devour up my discourse."). She knows how to be impressive in public; and a little part of her, entitled as she is, doesn’t see why she shouldn’t have the man she loves, and make a life with this bold adventurer - the kind of man, maybe, that she would have liked to be (“My story being done…She swore, i’faith, ‘twas strong, ‘twas passing strange;/… .she wished/ That heaven had made her such a man.”). But she’s also a kid in love, newly-married, charming, adored, yet tasting her newfound power and status (“our general’s wife is now the general,” says Iago). Iago’s brilliant at playing people’s strengths against them. Desdemona obviously likes to Fix Things (er, as Delia points out, a lot like me!) - and so he sends Cassio to ask her to intercede for him with her husband. (Big Mistake.)

I let her be a bit girlish sometimes - her “I am a child for chiding” has always stuck with me. She’s got a lightness of heart, a wit, even, that Othello lacks, and you can just imagine that’s one way they would have been such a great team.

And like her husband, Desdemona has a hard time imagining that there are Bad People in the world (let alone that she herself could possibly be suspected of being one of them). Again, I’m a bit the same - and so I drew on my remembered young self when I had her respond to his initial accusations with pride and even anger in her disbelief at them. She’s so often played getting pathetic and frightened too soon. I think she doesn’t really believe this is happening until the very end.

Oh, gosh - I didn't mean to go rambling on like this! But it’s all so fresh in my mind, and that’s what happens when I start writing. I wish I had a good photo of me as Desdemona, but if there were any, I haven’t seen them yet, and I need to get this out, since originally I started this to let you know about an online gig I have on Sunday.

So instead, here is a posed pic Delia took of my Mercutio two weeks ago.

The mask (a Green Man by Shane & Leah Odom of Mythical Designs) worn on the way to the Capulets’ masked ball (“a visor for a visor!”), and the sword for the final duel (given me by Holly Black’s husband, Theo).

We Zoomers didn’t start out doing costumes at all . . . but then came the hats, and, well . . . Listen, I can go on at great length about our Zooming Shakespeare group. If you want more stories, let me know. Also if you don’t.

The Gig

Meanwhile, I’m going LIVE tomorrow, Sunday, December 6th, in a virtual Stroll at 5:00 p.m. EST / 10:00 p.m. UK etc.:

We’re not actually strolling anywhere: I’ll probably sit in my living room, and talk, responding to questions that you type in. I’ve done it once before: it’s fun, and pretty lively! If you want to seed it with questions here in advance, please do.

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It’s happening on Facebook, via the page Stroll With the Stars: Home Edition Fall 2020. You sign in there and join my Live Video. If you don’t do Facebook, I apologize. I hope to be doing a similar thing on Instagram sometime soon.

* My CHANUKAH ALBUM *

This year, the Jewish “Festival of Lights” begins with Candle Number 1 on Thursday, December 10th at sundown. It is 2020, so please keep a close eye on anything you choose to set on fire, OK?

I will not bore entertain you right now with the story of how my live stage show with Boston’s Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, The Golden Dreydl: a Klezmer Nutcracker for Chanukah became the public radio special became the album became the book became the kids’ play and next year will be the book again with a new title, The Golden Dreidel (Charlesbridge Press).

BUT I was thrilled to find that the album, which is wayyyyy out of print, IS ON SPOTIFY! It’s the story of a girl named Sara who goes to a family Chanukah party where a mysterious aunt gives her the gift of an oversized dreidel . . . my narration is artfully woven with the band’s hilarious musical take on a well-known seasonal suite by a famous Russian composer.

It’s perfect for kids. Click HERE to listen to:

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And so another thrilling Saturday night comes to a close.

I did get a break this week: Delia & I really needed out of the city for couple of days to go look at some water. We ended up at a cottage upstate across from the Delaware River in Sullivan County.

As the prophets foretold, a Change is as good as a Rest - and so we returned to the City refreshed. I hope you are finding your own way to refresh yourself. Are you?

I suspect we can all agree that Books are one way to do it! Here are a couple of good ones I’ve been reading, one old, one new:

Image may contain: one or more people, text that says 'ADVANCE REVIEW COPY "A remarkable novel" Starburst on Metranume OLIVER K. LANGMEAD BIRDS OF PARADISE'
Coming in March 2021. An extraordinary new wok of mythic fiction! I will give them a “blurb” to that effect this week, as requested. But meanwhile, you’ve seen it here first!

Finally: I’ve tentatively started trying to interact with my GoodReads profile. I’m not sure it’s going well. But it’s going. And that’s a good place to stop.

Yours,

Ellen

(1) I met Emily when she came to NYC to do her one-woman show of Richard III, yes, you heard me. Mutual friends suggested we meet, and they were, as usual, right.

(2) I’m sorry we can’t invite anyone new into our little group: we’re already stretched to the limit over there only being so many Good Roles in each play. But here’s my BAD ADVICE: Start your own! It’s fun! It’s addictive! It builds character - and even community!