—Originally published October 10, 2016—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw “Cardenio,” Lovers & Madmen’s sort-of Shakespeare play. Let’s hear what Eleanor had to say about the performance a few days later…
The mid-October air had drifted lazily into that perfect sweet spot where the light breeze through the campus would keep you cool, while the bright rays of the sun reflected off the grey buildings populating Northwestern’s campus and kept you warm. This was the air that Eleanor walked through as she traversed the campus, from south up to north. Looking at apartments, she had justified her decision to live south of campus with the knowledge that walking to classes would provide her with some of the exercise she had promised to start doing during the year. But walking to the Wirtz Center was one problem. Trekking to Francis Searle was another matter.
On her path through the campus, just before passing behind Swift Hall, she glanced to the West and caught a glimpse of a U-Haul truck parked outside Shanley Pavilion. Another show loading in, she thought. She tried in vain to remember what would be performing during Week 5, but her mind escaped her. She knew “Cardenio,” Lovers & Madmen’s exuberant half-formed Shakespeare play, would be moving out, though their set was effectively just a wall.
Walking further, Eleanor realized that she had never taken time to discuss the show with Gwen and Dania. The two others had seen the show together during a matinee, but Eleanor, her fall quarter stuffed with commitments, had squeezed in an 11pm performance, walked home, and crashed on her bed. She wanted to know what Gwen and Dania had thought of the performance.
She could take her cursory shots at what Dania would bring up, of course. The comedy, naturally, especially the bravura performances from the manic mechanical Connor Scott, further cementing his status as the campus’ preeminent classical clown, as well as the delectably dry Mari Uchida as the fun-smirching Doris, the realist caught in a world of love and hope. The play’s ultimate message, one of being true to who you love and following your impulses, Eleanor knew Dania would stand firmly behind. After all, the play did leave you feeling so warm during its final moments. As the lovers dance together in the dying light, accompanied by the cherubic vocals of the evening’s provisional emcee, Simonetta (Lindsey Weiss). Even Simonetta’s pretty, if a touch indulgent performance of “La Vie En Rose” in the play’s opening scene – no fault to Weiss, for it’s Mee’s script under Adam Orme’s direction that allows the song to play a full repeat before it’s interrupted by the arrival of Anselmo’s parents…
Eleanor’s brow furrowed. Anselmo’s parents. She remembered them well. A pointedly comedic couple, embodied in Lucas Arnold and Jordan Moore. Arnold, who Eleanor had been quietly wishing would have a larger role one day, had done admirable work as Anselmo’s drama-obsessed father. Moore, as his mother, had elicited torrents of laughter from the audience, but Eleanor sat in Shanley and wondered silently: would the performance have been received as warmly if the actress had been female, like the character? It was always difficult for Eleanor to tell where the enjoyment of drag performances came from. Certainly, Moore had given an excellently over-the-top performance, without indicating his maleness while portraying a female character. But to audiences laughing when he first entered…
Eleanor put the thought out of her mind. There was more to criticize than the audience reacting to a good performance. The script, for one. She knew that Charles Mee’s script was unfinished, much like Shakespeare’s, and thus Orme as director (along with producer Gracie Brakeman) was left to piece together a rehearsal script from the pieces that were given to them. Some things were moved around, lines and bits were added, the show’s presumptive plot falls away at times to postulations on the nature of love.
But had it all tied together? Orme’s focus had clearly been in the right place: the love between the two romantic leads (the real romantic leads), which burned with luminous intensity through the refreshingly candid dialogue during the play’s second act. Beyond the love story, though, the subplots had slowly faded from Gwen’s memory in the ensuing days. There was another couple, she remembered, with a husband who drank too much and a wife too good for the marriage (and she knew it). That old school kind of “I hate you, now kiss me” love that certainly irked modern feminists – which Eleanor was. But with little to recall about the couple, she reserved her rage. Wasn’t there an actress who was brought in by the parents? Ah yes, the one whose romantic ties are resolved quickly and without ceremony in the final scene! That’s the one.
Eleanor felt guilty ragging on side characters, especially when the central couple had been so pleasant. She knew it was the script, not the actors. Her enjoyment of the production came from the actors, certainly – a character like Rudi could have easily been dead weight in the hands of an actor less capable than Scott. And the designs for the production, from Marley Smith’s yellowed wall to Jordan Todes’ perpetually-sun-dappled lights, gave off the atmosphere of something created to be light and comedic, rather than serious and weighty. A play for the summer, to be produced in these, the first few weeks of fall.
As she walked, Eleanor tried to remember more about the show. She had remembered having more to say during her exhausted walk back home at 1am. There had been small issues here and there, moments that hadn’t landed, tiny bits designed with a sycophantic collegiate audience in mind. But they had drifted away, engulfed in the twinkle of the string lights, the permeating scent of the pasta, the warm feeling in her heart as the lovers drifted on.
A few days earlier, Gwen and Dania had attended the production together, and discussed the play’s merits on their own, anticipating a conversation with Eleanor that would never happen…
Walking towards the exit of Shanley, Gwen eyed a pot of pasta sitting on a table, next to a cash box and a stack of programs.
“Is this for us?” Gwen asked of her friend, wearing an L&M tracket.
“Oh, no,” they responded. “Wait, did you get any during the intermission?”
“I didn’t,” Gwen said, eyeing the pasta more discerningly.
“No, we weren’t, we don’t have the X on the hand,” Dania interjected, laying a hand on Gwen’s shoulder.
“Oh, yeah,” said the L&M member. “Then no.”
“Just move along,” Dania said, leading Gwen out of the building.
As soon as they were out into the midday air, Gwen turned to Dania with a bemused look.
“What was that?” she asked, with an accusatory eye.
“It’s only for the first thirty people who get in,” Dania explained. “They draw a little X on their hand, and they got pasta during intermission.”
“Oh,” Gwen said, retreating her gaze. “I see.”
Dania zipped her jacket up, against the cold. “Yeah, I only know because I tried to get a bowl during intermission before.”
“Makes sense,” Gwen said. “I assumed that the smell of pasta was just my mind making connections with the setting. I thought, ‘Man, this must be really good if they’re making me imagine pasta in the air.’”
Dania laughed. “No, it’s not that good.”
“Oh, you didn’t like it?” Gwen asked, as they began to walk?
“Oh, no, no, no, I liked it fine,” Dania clarified. “I just mean it’s not, like, so good it warps your senses and makes you smell things.”
“Ah,” Gwen responded.
Dania started again. “No, I thought it was actually really fun. The script is really complex, and I’m not sure I followed everything that was going on, but what I did pick up, I enjoyed.”
“That’s Charles Mee for you,” Gwen said. “The script is this half-formed thing, where there technically is a script, but you’re supposed to move things around and change it. So every performance is both new and derivative.”
“That’s kinda cool,” Dania said. “What did they change?”
“I’m not 100% certain,” Gwen said. “I know they shifted a few scenes around, but that’s only because I know the actors. Other than that, there was one ‘she doesn’t have the range’ joke, but beyond that…”
“Yes, I caught that!” Dania continued. “From Rudi! He was one of the best parts of the show. So funny!”
“Connor Scott’s a powerhouse of an actor,” Gwen agreed. “He and Matt Ruehlman and Amy Torchiana basically saved ‘Twelfth Night’ last year. He’s a Shakespearean clown, for certain.”
“I liked that other girl, though,” Dania added. “The one with the…what’s it called…”
“With the grey dress?” Gwen postulated. “Mari Uchida. Dry as the martini she was holding.”
“No, it’s a musical instrument,” Dania clarified. “The girl on the side.”
“Oh, Simonetta,” Gwen said, recognizing the description. “Yes, Lindsey Weiss. They did a nice job of narrating the show.”
“I liked them,” Dania said. “I would have had them end up with the tall drinking guy at the end, rather than that wife who kept yelling.”
“Oh, um…” Gwen glanced back into her program for the character names. “Edmund and Sally?”
“Was that them?” Dania asked. “The secondary couple. The guy was in the play-within-the-play.”
“That’s them,” Gwen said. “You want to ship Edmund and Simonetta?”
“They had one cute little scene,” Dania explained. “Where he said they were pretty. Right?”
“I don’t remember,” Gwen admitted. “The whole play is already starting to together in my head. Did Anselmo ever find out about Will and…”
“No, he never did,” Dania said. “I don’t think he did, anyway. It’s funnier if he doesn’t.”
“It’s that kind of play,” Gwen summed up. “You glean what you will from it, and –” Gwen stopped mid-sentence, and her face curled into a smile. “Heh. ‘What you will.’”
“What?” Dania said. “What will I?”
“No, it’s the subtitle for ‘Twelfth Night,’” Gwen explained. “The whole idea of the two Shakespeare plays that use the second person in their title – ‘As You Like It’ is the other one – is that they’re light comedies, which people wanted then. Shakespeare gave them what they asked for.”
“Oh, I get it,” Dania said. She glanced into the trees, attempting to recollect the previous year’s “Twelfth Night,” for comparison to this new unhinged Shakespeare comedy. “That’s a clever little title mnemonic.”
“Well, it’s the principle of something like this. There are really high stakes for the characters, but it all comes across as pretty comedy. Then again,” Gwen said, her gaze drifting downwards, “I don’t know if the original ‘Cardenio’ was known to be a comedy or a tragedy.”
“Well, this is its own show, right?” Dania suggested.
“That it certainly is.”
“Maybe they should have called it ‘Your Cardenio,’” Dania said.
Gwen considered the idea. It wasn’t a bad way of representing the revision of the script being done, via the title alone. Then again, for this production, where the actors seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much as (if not more than) the audience, perhaps “Our Cardenio” would better fit.
“What did you think?” Dania asked.
“I thought it was…good,” Gwen said. She tried to remember what the specific moments she had identified during the performance were. “It’s not really my style, this kind of broad comedy. But, I mean, I enjoyed it.”
“Well, you’re all serious and into that more dramatic stuff,” Dania said.
“Yes,” Gwen said. “I’m absolutely psyched for ‘Grounded’ next weekend. But I can still appreciate something like this.” Gwen snapped her fingers. “I think that’s probably the right word. Appreciate. I truly appreciated the show, and the work behind it, even if it’s a touch unpolished.”
“I liked the actors a little more than the story, I’d say,” Dania said. “No one wasn’t funny.”
“Definitely,” Gwen agreed. “Lucas Arnold was captivatingly over the top playing basically an alternate universe version of himself. So was Jordan as that domineering wife character.”
“And Rudi,” said Dania. “But we talked about him already. And Simonetta.”
“It’s a character-driven narrative,” said Gwen. “So when the narrative slows down, at least the characters are still there to be enjoyable.”
“Kinda like Winnie The Pooh.”
Gwen smiled. “Perhaps a little bit. Set in a villa rather than the woods.”
“Well,” Dania said. “They did keep referencing the trees in the distance.”
“Maybe,” Gwen said, dismissing the subject. The two girls walked on through the campus, the sun still shining down in the midafternoon.
Somewhere, in another location on campus, Eleanor was thinking about how she would see “Cardenio” the next day, and wondered silently what Gwne and Dania would tell her of it before she did.