What can I say about a long journey only moments after I’ve started it?
This week I’m going on a theatrical journey courtesy of Forced Entertainment and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance with “Complete Works Table Top Shakespeare.” The map, such as it is, captures both time and space. The time is the roughly 36 hours that it’s going to take to traverse 36 plays in Shakespeare’s canon across six days. The space is a juxtaposition between the profoundly limited, a small table top, and the theoretically limitless bounds of the imagination.
The simplest description I can muster is that a group of actors, or maybe more appropriately storytellers, recounts one at a time the action of each of Shakespeare’s plays condensed to an hour each. Each actor does this sitting behind a wonderfully simple wooden folding table. For props, or maybe puppets, the constrain themselves to the kind of things one could rummage from a pantry closet. Wednesday night, Pericles was a simple soup can without a label – vaguely shiny to befit his status as a prince. Then, after one of the many shipwrecks that constantly befall him, the can gets turned around to reveal a telling dent. Later in “Midsummer,” those spirits of the forest Oberon and Titania were played by two bottles of Gin. Puck? A little miniature booze bottle.
As to the storytelling, it’s brilliantly straightforward. The actor simply tells us what happens in the play. They don’t act it out.Shakespeare’s language makes brief appearances but no more than it would if someone asked you at your desk today to tell the story of Hamlet. You might make reference to a few choice lines here and there – “and then Hamlet questions his existence with ‘to be or not to be'” – but it’s not about the language, it’s about the plays themselves. This happens – then this happens – then this happens… then the last thing that happens is.
What’s striking about this week-long journey, only a couple hours in, is frankly it’s length. We are used to carving out a couple hours for a story. We’ll commit to art that takes us two hours but can we carve out 4 or even 10 hours?
To be clear, you can pop into Forced Entertainment’s “Complete Works” for only two hours and treat it like a typical night in the theater. It’s worthy of those two hours . . . but I can already sense you will get more from more. At the least, see a whole night (4 plays spanning from 5pm till 10pm with a dinner break).
Because this is a work of art about commitment and accumulation. The experience of a single play, while meaningful, is only a single piece in a larger puzzle. What’s stunning is the experience of carving out that time to listen to someone telling you a story without fancy lighting effects or video edits or text messages or commercial breaks.
That commitment alone will have meaning.