One of the final lines of this play is also its title: “Goodnight Desdemona. Good morning, Juliet.”
We were sketching our way through this scene for the first time sometime last week, when I stopped the actors. They all slumped to the ground, relieved to be stopped partway through a complicated scene. Rebecca plays Constance, the Shakespearean academic sucked into the plays of Othello and Romeo and Juliet, who has the wonderful gift of being able to say this line (that’s sarcasm – it’s a hard line). She let out a sigh and scrunched up her nose as I approached and ask her, “what the heck does that mean? Why do you say the title of the play there?” And then we all threw down our scripts and stomped around and shook our fists at the sky because we were running up against one of those stupid, miniature roadblocks that are actually the majority of the rehearsal process.
Then the epiphanies started rolling.
“Well, Desdemona dies when Othello comes to bed at night…” says Deanna Wells, who plays several characters including Romeo and Iago. “And Juliet dies when she wakes up to see Romeo dead on top of her.”
*DING!* Epiphany 1: Constance, who after a couple nasty bangs on the head, a sudden heartbreak, and career suicide, falls through her trashcan into these plays, begins to change the plots. She acts out a sublimated version of her own academic thesis by playing the role of a Fool, therefore turning these classic tragedies into comedies. So, Desdemona isn’t smothered. Juliet doesn’t die. In short, they’re safe to go to sleep and wake up without harm.
Later, we’re rehearsing the dumb show that starts the play where the murders of Desdemona and Juliet are acted out silently as written in Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve blocked Melissa, who plays Desdemona, to do a pilates-worthy slow lie down as she’s smothered, while Bonnie, who plays Juliet, bolts straight up from her slumber to discover dead Romeo and the dagger. We commence rehearsing the action, when:
“Oooooh I get it!” Bonnie shouts, stopping us, charmingly. We all laugh, and encourage her to tell us what’s up. “She’s lying down while I’m getting up. Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet. Get it?”
*DING!* Epiphany 2. The physical action mirrors the words. Desdemona lying down is like going to sleep; Juliet sitting upright is like waking up. As simple and obvious as this sounds, it’s helpful to find a physical connection to these Themes with a capital T.
Oh yes, the Themes. The safety of Desdemona and Juliet is, of course, a metaphor for Constance’s self-actualization. By transforming their fates, she has transformed her own. By determining their continuation, she has asserted her own ability to move on from a low, humiliating moment in her life. But the actors don’t care about that more than peripherally. They care about how they can play that moment, which can feel like the author’s (Ann-Marie MacDonald’s) Jungian thesis blotting the drama with a rather bold stroke of Theme.
I sense that the trend in popular theater is toward hyper-naturalism. We see cross-sections of living rooms, people texting lines of dialogue, we expect blood and drunkenness to be as close to the real deal as possible. In truth, most theater is poetry, and Goodnight Desdemona is especially so. I mean, good lord, the woman falls down her trashcan, we’re not exactly looking at O’Neill here. The Themes, the Metaphorical Subtext are important, though hard as heck to play in a way that is engaging, active, and entertaining.
So, *DING!* Epiphany 3 is for me as a director is to embrace Thematic moments like this as poetry. The rich, deep metaphorical stuff that makes up Shakespeare’s best work, and leaves me working with my actors on a half page scene lifted from Romeo and Juliet for an hour and a half and still have more to say. The poetry that keeps Tennessee Williams poignant and Sarah Ruhl captivating in its vagueness. This sort of stuff that has room for interpretation can be cheesy and alienating if done incorrectly, but rich and thought-provoking when done well.
But by watching the moment, like meditation, by thinking it and feeling it and encouraging all the small epiphanies, we drill down to make lines like this significant, specific, and exciting. It doesn’t have to make Sense with a capital S. It just has to feel right.
-Brenan Dwyer, director
Brenan Dwyer's Blog
Looking for happiness in art daily.