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When he wanted to be, William Shakespeare was the Martin Scorsese of his time. If you look at the climax of Hamlet and The Departed, the two aren't far off — pretty much everybody dies in a bloody blitzkrieg of deceit and revenge.
The Bard was invariably a tragedian, humorist, and wry commentator, but he was also a fighter, and his works helped establish the theater as a place of thrilling, visceral conflict as well as cerebral chatter. And Kevin Crawford, for one, is tired of seeing Shakespeare's fight scenes diluted with cheap tricks best reserved for the WWE.
"I can't stand it when I go to Oregon or Alabama Shakespeare festivals — and these are great companies with great actors, and they've got licensed and specially trained and union stunt coaches — and you see someone take a slap in the face and miss by a foot, or they do the cheap gag where they slap their own hand to make the sound or stomp on the floor," says Crawford, associate artistic director of the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival. "I know theater is all artifice, but it goes too far backwards. When two lovers kiss onstage, they usually actually kiss."
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Crawford will be put to his own fight test this weekend and next with Coriolanus, his company's 23rd-annual production, in Jupiter's Seabreeze Amphitheater. Violence is a major facet of this play, which is about the fractious relationship between an antisocial general turned politico and the vox populi he must win over to advance his career. Last year, director Ralph Fiennes adapted a critically acclaimed film version of Coriolanus soaked in bullets and blood; one film critic astutely dubbed the version "Shakespeare's Rambo."
For his own adaptation, Crawford and his cast will be sidestepping the perennial problem of realistic fight scenes by taking a page from the playbook of actor and stage director Steven Burkoff: They'll mime the action, suggesting guns and swords rather than showing them and employing sound effects to enhance the atmosphere.
"There will be no swords, no props, no anything," Crawford says. "And it has strangely freed us up. There are so many safety measures you have to take in fake swordfighting, but to me, it makes it less real. The imagination is far more powerful than seeing something that looks unreal. It's why Shakespeare worked on a bare stage."
The folks at the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival are no strangers to doing things their own way, going against the grain of more-traditional Bard translations. Last year, their version of the romantic comedy Twelfth Night transferred its shipwreck setting into a plane crash on a deserted island, taking overt inspiration from Lost. As in the mind-boggling hit series, this Twelfth Night would eventually reveal that everybody had died in the crash and that the play itself was the last vision of their lives before they perished.
"We constantly put a spin on the Shakespeare plays," says Kermit Christian, founder and producing artistic director. "Yes, it is a Shakespeare play, in his language, but we always play with the setting, the time, and how we want to design the show. Shakespeare was very clever: He gave you the largesse to do anything you want to do."
For Coriolanus, the team is taking its experimentalism one step further. In the 2012 film, Fiennes already updated the setting from ancient Rome to present day, in a nebulous region of unrest that suggested the Arab Spring, Tea Party rallies, and Occupy protests. Christian and Crawford will move the setting even further ahead in the future by staging their Coriolanus in deep space, where, as a certain Ridley Scott film famously suggested, no one can hear you scream.
When developing a show, "one of the first words that comes into my mind is: What is happening to all of us collectively on the planet right now?" says Christian. "A lot of that comes through media, through entertainment. And putting together a vision of the future is easy to come to because of all these science-fiction movies that are on now. You've got Star Trek, Oblivion — all of these things are part of the collective consciousness in this country. You don't have to think too terribly hard. You just have to watch and listen and be mindful, and then the idea comes to you."
Whether it's a burning Rome or a doom-laden spaceship, Coriolanus has uniquely endured among Shakespeare's corpus because it's the Bard's most political play, and its images of rioting plebeians supporting and then turning coat on a valiant general echo loudly in our current age of political cynicism. Like our own government most of the time, it's hard to find anyone to root for.
"There are no real identifiable villains or heroes," Crawford says. "Kermit and I were joking that very few people in this play are likable, because they're that much more real. You look at Hamlet and think, I don't want him to die; the ghost of his dad showed up, and this, that, and the other thing... You look at Coriolanus, and I think most people are going to say, 'Damn, he's an asshole!' But he's a great general.
"And then the people come in, and you think, I'll side with them, because they're working against an asshole. And they turn out to be hyenas and monsters, and audiences will think, I don't like them either. It's not fair, what they said. There's something strangely Petraeus-like about certain movements in the play, in terms of a highly decorated army official doing something morally suspect and people turning on him. It's all there."
Christian summarizes the play's politics by referencing an oft-quoted axiom from philosophers Will and Ariel Durant: A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. "It's always been my fear of what's happening now in America, because I believe we are in a decline at the moment," Christian says. "It's a fascinating play, and the collective wisdom is very fascinating. Some people will get it, and some won't, but I think the audiences will enjoy it and get right to the heart of it — and also try to figure it out."