Monday, February 22, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Laura Hirschberg on Verona Walls

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on the men onstage and behind the scenes. Let's balance that out! This is #6 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work.

This week, I'm glad to get the chance to talk to a playwright about Shakespeare. Laura Hirschberg has set her play, Verona Walls, just before act one of Romeo and Juliet. By basing her play on Shakespeare's works, she joins a tradition that stretches all the back to his own lifetime, when John Fletcher wrote The Tamer Tamed. Laura took some time to email with me about Shakespearean inspiration and adaptation.

Let’s start with Verona Walls. What's its relationship to Romeo and Juliet?

My shorthand explanation of Verona Walls has always been: “Mercutio in Love.” The plot begins a week before the action of Romeo and Juliet kicks off and focuses on Mercutio — Romeo's best friend, one of Verona's leading wits, a gentleman, a rascal, a lover and a fighter. At the top of the show, Mercutio has had one too many bad dates and failed romances and decides to swear off love. Of course, that's destiny's cue to throw a girl into his path who shakes up his world completely. And as that story unfolds, Mercutio is also ruled by his love and devotion to Verona and the “Montague boys” — a love that proves increasingly dangerous as the events of Shakespeare's play bleed into the onstage action of Verona Walls.

How far did you go in turning Mercutio into your own creation?

I can't deny that at this point, Verona Walls' Mercutio is more mine than Shakespeare's. But at the core he is Shakespeare's [character]. He is the man who rails against love and dreams in his “Queen Mab” speech and then, a handful of scenes later, dies because of events set into motion by love and dreams. He's brave and loyal and foolish and hilarious. And that's all in the Shakespeare. But behind the Shakespeare is my guy, who is all of the things previously mentioned, but he's also a man in love, pulled in opposite directions by people and places and values that just can't manage to coexist.

There’s a long history of rewriting Shakespeare’s plays. How do you approach that legacy?

I'm pretty enthusiastically well-versed in that legacy and I like to think that every adaptation I've encountered, from Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead to West Side Story to Forbidden Planet, has played a part in the unique world I've created for this piece. I describe our setting as “Shakespeare's Verona” because this is a play set outside of specific time and place. This Verona is Zeffirelli's and Bernstein's and Luhrmann's and Shakespeare's and mine. Verona Walls is full of anachronisms — Star Wars references, W.H. Auden poems, Foo Fighters riffs, along with lines from Richard II and Hamlet —because the themes of this play, like the themes of Romeo and Juliet, repeat throughout history and literature and music and will go on repeating. So that's the Verona we're dealing with — every Verona, any Verona.

You invent a romantic partner for Mercutio, an adventurer named Alyssa. What led to her conception?

Mercutio is hard to match. I needed someone up to snuff and I found I had to go outside of Shakespeare's canon. Shakespeare has his strong women — powerful, funny, resourceful — but overwhelmingly, they are tied to their worlds. I think part of what makes Mercutio so appealing is that he doesn't quite fit. So I created Alyssa — a woman with no interest in belonging to any particular place or group. She's a citizen of the world, something he's never seen before and doesn't really know how to deal with.

What did she let you do that couldn’t be done with Shakespeare’s raw materials?

By going outside of Shakespeare, I could let Alyssa be truly free. She is whoever she chooses to be. Her words aren't borrowed and we don't know where she came from or where she might be headed.

Speaking more generally, what’s your relationship with Shakespeare, playwright to playwright?

I'm an unabashed Shakespeare fan-girl. As a writer, director, and human being, I come back to Shakespeare time and time again because his plays strike at the heart. I'm not saying every word of Cymbeline or As You Like It contains some profound truth. Rather, throughout his work, I find these pitch-perfect encapsulations of the human experience. 

As my personal experiences evolve, different bits of his plays push their way to the forefront. And that's something I aspire to as a writer: Creating something that the reader/viewer can grow up with, something that hits you differently if you're in love or in mourning, twenty years old or sixty, but it still hits you. Also, as a writer, the number of jokes Shakespeare can cram into one speech is enough to make your jaw drop.

What in Shakespeare’s dramaturgy that you find inspiring? In your work on Verona Walls or elsewhere, have you stolen any techniques or devices from him?

Wordplay wordplay wordplay. His precision with language is hugely inspiring, down to the rhythm and emphases within the lines. For this play, I've borrowed a heavy dose of dramatic irony from him, in addition to some double entendre and a few nearly tragic misunderstandings. But I very intentionally dodged a trope of his that I find particularly frustrating in Romeo and Juliet — the intervention of fate or bad luck. In this play, there are certainly some events that are beyond the characters' control, but when it comes down to it, they make their choices and play out their hands.

What’s your perspective on Shakespeare's female roles?

Really, what's unfortunate is how few women there are in his plays. Because when you land on a good female role in Shakespeare, she's really good. She's Lady Macbeth or Margaret or Lady Percy or Joan of Arc. Beatrice and Rosaline and, yes, Juliet and Ophelia—these are all powerful parts. It is unfortunate that often in Shakespeare, women are obstacles or prizes to be won or victims. But these women are real people, with needs and flaws and passions — all of which can dramatically affect the trajectory of the plays they're in.

I struggle with a character like Desdemona because I want her to be smarter, more active.  She might not be able to change the course of events, but I'm desperate for her to investigate. That's why I'm so thankful for the presence of Emilia in Othello. She has even less power in her society than Desdemona, but she makes herself heard and goes down fighting. Shakespeare often gives us that kind of balance—you've got Hero, but right next to her is Beatrice. No one burns hotter than Hotspur… except his wife, Lady Percy.

Is there anything in his plays that's beyond salvaging?

There may be no salvaging for Taming of the Shrew. But otherwise, when we come upon these questions like “How can Hero be okay with marrying Claudio at the end of Much Ado?”, maybe the way to move forward with these “problematic” women is to embrace the problem — let there be a little something undeniably wrong even as everything else gets tied up in a bow.


The Workshop Theater's Verona Walls runs from March 3 to 26 at the Workshop Theater in the Garment District.

photo 1  Laura Hirschberg
photo 2  Rachel Flynn & Ryan McMurdy

1 comment:

John said...

You both ought to come meet me some evening at The Players. There you may find (speaking of re-invention) Colley Cibber's version of Richard III that Edwin Booth and almost every actor-manager used until EB restored the original in or about 1866/7; scads of info on 19th c theatre, performance styles, many plays and playwrights from c. 500 BC to the present and Shakes-- the 2nd folio; an old series of softcovers on WS edited by W.C. Bryant, 19th c.-21st c. attitudes about how certain scenes in the plays were or are edited or deleted so as to not offend the delicate senses of women or the religious or picky or scholarly pedants, articles, pictorials and discussions of the plays from a 19th c. POV, so much "your head would spin" (as a certain candidate for the presidency might put it).
I'm coming to see Verona's Walls on Thursday.
I suppose you already know about "Letters to Juliet," and pix of what many think is her tomb.