Conspiracy. Assassination. Self-righteousness. Sexual exploitation. Betrayal. General mayhem. They’re all on view at the multiplex or on the flat screen.
You also can see it live and on stage — absent the gory detail — at this year’s Hawaii Shakespeare Festival, which opens this weekend with a two-week run of "Julius Caesar," the Bard’s telling of the assassination of the Roman leader and its bloody aftermath. "Caesar" will be followed by "Measure for Measure," a dark comedy doubling as a morality play, and "Henry VI," a distillation of three Shakespeare plays about the troubled life and hectic times of the 15th-century English monarch.
While there will be rhyme, there’s no particular reason behind this season’s selections. Tony Pisculli, a founder of the festival and director of "Henry VI," said his mission to do all 37 Shakespeare plays has begun to limit his choices as the festival enters its ninth year.
"From this season on, I’ve mapped out what we needed to do to get them all done, and so it was really kind of a force-fit," he said. Despite the happenstance programming, this year’s plays share a powerful theme of "the failure of leadership, the power vacuum that creates turmoil," he said.
HAWAII SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
"Measure for Measure"
Where: The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.
Info: Brown Paper Tickets, 1-800-838-3006 or www.hawaiishakes.org/tickets.htm
That the plays also fit together in a kind of ripped-from-the-headlines way is "what makes Shakespeare timeless and a classic," Pisculli said. "It’s always relevant. You look at Shakespeare’s contemporaries, they’re not still being performed so much 400 years later. It’s because they were too much a product of their time. … Shakespeare, without any ornamentation, works very well today, but it also very successfully adapts to being set in other time periods."
This season’s production of "Julius Caesar" will be a prime example of that. Director Troy Apostol has chosen to set it in Hawaii, just after contact with the West. Apostol said the setting is a tribute to Paul Cravath, his drama teacher at Leeward Community College, who would "create a play about a certain part of the aina … and infuse it with folklore from that area, but have the main story done in modern times."
Apostol said he set the play in Hawaii as an homage.
"Why not take an epic story like ‘Julius Caesar’ and frame it in the place where you live, that’s so rich with the culture of the people that were already there?" he said.
Supernatural aspects of the work parallel aspects of traditional Hawaiian culture, Apostol said. "Things they see in the night sky harken back to tales I heard growing up in Hawaii about ocean signs."
In Apostol’s adaptation, the soothsayer, a Bible-thumping missionary, warns Caesar to "Beware the ides of March." Caesar ignores this and other warnings, succumbing to a conspiracy that even his friend Brutus has joined. The rest of the play revolves around the interplay between the assassins, characterized chiefly by Brutus as played by Moses Goods, and Caesar’s supporters, led by Antony as portrayed by the actor known as Q.
The roles pose challenges for two of the island’s most dynamic actors.
"What’s interesting about Brutus is that if you have to pick a bad guy, I guess he would be the bad guy," Goods said. "But really to me what makes him so interesting is, he’s not a bad guy. What he’s doing he honestly believes is the right thing to do."
"The conflict in the end drives Brutus almost to a point of insanity because everything starts to go downhill and he loses it," Goods said. "On one hand, he’s dealing with killing his friend, and on the other, he’s dealing with neglecting his wife (Portia). … I’ve got to see how I’m going to process all that."
Q sees the many contradictions in Antony. "He was privy to partake in womanizing, partying and liquor, and had this event not been thrust upon him, he wouldn’t have been such a pivotal character in history," Q said. "He doesn’t really amount to much right up to the death of Caesar, and all of sudden … just with one speech, spins everything around and throws everything into chaos. "He’s thinking this is the only way he can do his friend right."
As eager as he is to portray a role that "I’ve always wanted to play," Q was hesitant about the Hawaiian setting of the play. "It’s superscary," he said. "I’ve seen so much stuff where they say, ‘Let’s do it Hawaiian’ and they just slap some Hawaiian words in there. You can’t do that in Hawaii. There’s too many people who know what Hawaiian is, who know the rituals, and to do that is just embarrassing."
Goods, who works at Bishop Museum, also confesses to being nervous about the staging.
"Hawaiian culture happens to be one of my passions in life, and Shakespeare — acting — is another one," he said. "Combining those two can be a really difficult challenge. We definitely want to make sure that we’re putting the right cultural elements in, because if not, that would upset a lot of people. I’m going to be very curious to see how they receive this."
The staging includes authentic Hawaiian chants and hula. Background sounds will be created on Hawaiian musical instruments and the play’s fight sequences will feature traditional weapons, crafted specially for the show by Rodney Kaha Toledo.
Just don’t expect to hear orations begin with "Friends, Hawaiians, countrymen." Apostol decided against "translating" the play into Hawaiian, keeping the script in Shakespeare’s English. "When anyone says ‘Rome’ or ‘Roman,’ the rule of thumb is, in your heart, say ‘Hawaii’ and ‘Hawaiian,’" Apostal said.
In the end, he said, "the audience will see an epic story told in familiar language."
Also on stage…
"Measure for Measure"
Erupting into laughter, Linda Johnson said she chose to direct "Measure for Measure" because she "thought it was the funny one — until I read the script!"
She and her cast found humor in this dark comedy, in which sex propels the plot.
In the play, Duke Vincentio takes leave, assigning the prudish Angelo his post. Angelo, enforcing an old law, intends to punish a man who has impregnated his fiancee before the marriage vows are final. But he is entranced by the man’s sister, the postulant nun Isabella, and demands that she sleep with him to get her brother off the hook.
Hijinks are supposed to ensue from that?
A few comic elements have developed so far: A "surprise" sex scene. An "Ugly Betty" character.
Danielle Vivvartas, who plays Isabella, said Isabella’s discovery of the power of her sexuality is intoxicating, resulting in coquettish behavior that should amuse the audience. "It’s like watching any 18-year-old girl," Vivvartas said. "I’m thinking, ‘I should have tried that when I was younger.’"
Stephen Mead, who portrays Angelo, said he wanted to perform the role since seeing the play years ago. "Playing a villain is usually a very good part," he said. "The transformation of his character is interesting. When he’s given all the power, he says, ‘No, give me another test.’ He knows it’s not a good idea. … Then you don’t see him again until he’s become absolutely fanatical about sex."
Johnson is setting the play in the future, with the world run by corporations. Determining right from wrong is unclear.
"When (these characters) make a decision, whether it’s right or wrong according to Scriptures, somehow they can interpret it to be right," Johnson said. "These are the flaws of human nature we’re dealing with."
Shakespeare wrote many plays based on historical characters, but not a truly biographical one. Director Tony Pisculli has addressed that by combining "Henry VI" Parts 1, 2 and 3 into one.
"It’s just nonstop action," he said of the original three plays. "These are some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it was a very tumultuous period in England’s history. (Shakespeare) puts a lot of action into them, and later he’s content to let the characters talk. But here, every scene is interrupted by a fight."
The plays cover everything from England’s battle against Joan of Arc, to the successionary wars known as the War of the Roses, to Henry’s aborted attempt to hang onto his crown by disinheriting his son. In the end, he and his family are wiped out by Richard of Gloucester, who vows to "kill everyone who gets in his way" and later becomes one of England’s most reviled leaders, Pisculli said.
Pisculli is following tradition at the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival — and defying the traditions of Shakespeare’s era — by using an all-female cast, but he sees no conflict in using women in a plot where the historically male traits of ambition and power are the driving forces.
"Women may not have as much testosterone as men, but they certainly have the ability to be as emotionally charged, as passionate, as violent in their way as men," Pisculli said. "The main reason I’m using women is because there are so many talented female actors in this town. Typically at our auditions we have more women than men, and it’s just a tragedy to turn away so many talented people, just because they’re the wrong sex for the role."
Michelle Hurtubise will play Henry from his ascension at nine months to his assassination 50 years later. She is preparing for the role by "thinking about the journey a person goes on, not just growing up, but coming into a leadership role. … He’s king, but he doesn’t necessarily want to be king. Some say he’s not cut out for it, but yet he is. So does the role make the man, or does the man make the role? That’s a big question that this play explores."
As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, Hurtubise sees history possibly repeating itself in Henry’s story. "There’s a lot of humanity in Henry and an idealism that I really like and am attracted to," she said. "Even if the economy is crumbling around us, are we supposed to give up our individual humanity? It’s hard times now, there’s always crooked politicians. We have an idealistic leader. These are all these things that you want to resonate, and my goal is to let it live."
As for all the fighting, Hurtubise has an easy role.
"They get to sword fight, and I get to watch," she said.