Milton’s Paradise Regained!

Posted: October 9, 2019 by nrhelms in Announcements, Staged Reading
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On Wednesday, October 16th in 30 ten Hoor Hall, Improbable Fictions presents a staged reading of John Milton’s Paradise Regained.

7:30 pm show start, free and open to the public.

Sponsored by the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, UA Dept. of English.

For more information, please visit improbablefictions.org and strode.english.ua.edu/.

Paradise Regained poster, final, Gustav Dore

Twelfth Night ramblin’

Posted: October 9, 2019 by nrhelms in Program Notes, ShakesFilm, Staged Reading
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In Trevor Nunn’s 1996 “Twelfth Night,” possibly the best, or at least among the top, film adaptations of this comedy, Toby Stephens plays Orsino as a languid, distant melancholic.

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So it took me a number of double-takes to recognize the same actor — now fiery red-headed, apparently his natural coloring — 20 years later, as bloody, devious Capt. Flint from the lush pirate epic “Black Sails,” a “Games of Thrones”-ish (heavily peopled, disturbingly graphic, reliant much like “Vikings” on period detail, lavishing bucks building actual working ships for ramming and wrecking) production, set in the Bahamas but filmed in South Africa.

It ran four years on Starz, 2014-2017, and you can get it on disc. I found the Blu rays worth the extra dollars; it’s a vivid, beautiful mess.

Stephens works heavily in theater, especially for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as did his parents — more on them in a bit — but he’s been in movies such as Sally Potter’s 1992 “Orlando,” from the Virginia Woolf novel, and Tilda Swinton’s breakthrough role; as the villain in the 2002 Bond movie “Die Another Day,” Gustav Graves; in a 2000 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” as Jay Gatz: and on TV series and miniseries such as the 2006 “Jane Eyre,” playing Rochester. He’s currently John Robinson on the new “Lost in Space” series.

Stephens burned through “Black Sails” as Flint, a former naval officer leaving more than one twisted tale in his wake, a sort-of prequel to “Treasure Island” that mixes Robert Louis Stevenson’s characters (such as Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones) with real-world pirates such as Anne Bonny, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, “Calico Jack” Rackham (who created the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger flag) and Israel Hands, one of the few who was both historical figure and “Treasure Island” character.

It’s a bloody fine time, if you can abide graphic realism in your sax and violins.

Wonderfully atmospheric music by Bear McCreary, who also composed/composes for “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Walking Dead,” “Outlander” (if you listen, you can hear the “Outlander” theme, “Skye Boat Song,” playing in a bar in “Black Sails”) and others.

McCreary’s one of the rare proteges taken on by film and theater legend Elmer Bernstein, composer for “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Escape,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Hud,” “Ghostbusters,” “Animal House”… on and on. Though he was NOT related to Leonard Bernstein; just pals, distinguished from one another in their field as Bernstein West and Bernstein East, because while both composed for theater and film, Elmer leaned more LA while Leonard worked more in NYC. Also pronounced differently: Elmer BERN-steen, and Leonard BERN-stine.

Now back to our regularly scheduled Brit-theatrical deep-dive.

Because he carries his father’s name, I didn’t know until imdbing, the day after the Improbable Fictions’ latest staged reading of “Twelfth Night,” that Toby Stephens is the son of Dame Maggie Smith.

The Dame Maggie Smith.

That Dame Maggie Smith. Violet Crawley, Minerva McGonagall, Miss Jean Brodie, and various goddesses, matriarchs and acid-tongued ladies of stage and screen for the past 60 years.

Stephens’ older brother, Smith’s other son, Chris Larkin, has one of those character-actor faces you’ll likely recognize, having been in “Master and Commander,” “Valkyrie,” “Jane Eyre,” and numerous others. Larkin also co-starred on “Black Sails” (as Captain Berringer), as did Stephens’ wife, Anna-Louise Plowman (as Mrs. Hudson), who you might remember from “Stargate SG-1,” or an Eccleston “Doctor Who” episode, or….The “Black Sails” actor who played Anne Bonny was born Lady Clara Elizabeth Iris Paget, daughter of the Marquess of Anglesey.

Aside from being born near-royalty himself as Maggie Smith’s son, Toby Stephens is also step-son to Patricia Quinn, who was the fourth wife of another RSC giant, Sir Robert Stephens, once thought to be the next Laurence Olivier, though heavy drinking dropped him into the gutter.

But after remarrying and sobering up (at least somewhat), then came a somewhat on-the-nose comeback: Robert Stephens won the ’93 Olivier Award for his Falstaff. The RSC also invited him back to play Lear and Julius Caesar. Stephens was knighted early in ’95; deceased in late ’95.

While still married, Stephens and Smith starred in the 1967 film of “Much Ado About Nothing,” as Benedick and Beatrice, built around a stage adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who you might know from every other Shakespeare film ever, but especially the beloved 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” for which Stephens played The Prince, and Olivier (uncredited) narrated and played Lord Montague. Zeffirelli directed Larkin in a 1996 “Jane Eyre,” though not brother Stephens in the 2006 “Jane Eyre.”

The elder Stephens worked with Kenneth Branagh (who directed and starred in the 1993 “Much Ado” movie opposite HIS then-wife, Emma Thompson) on the 1989 film “Henry V,” as “Auncient” Pistol, while Smith of course worked with Branagh in the Harry Potter movies.

But then everyone’s worked with Branagh, the English Kevin Bacon.

Both Stephens and Smith worked with Olivier in productions of “Othello,” as Iago and Desdemona … though separately.

Oh yeah, and Stephens’ aforementioned fourth wife, Patricia Quinn? You’ll recognize her as Magenta from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Those are her lips at the beginning, mouthing “Science Fiction, Double Feature,” though the voice belongs to her old friend Richard O’Brien, aka Riff Raff, who wrote the musical “RHPS”‘s based on. Quinn’s nephew is the drummer for Snow Patrol.

My new favorite Toby Stephens quote: “Actors don’t listen to each other. You’re so obsessed with what you’re saying or doing that the other person could be talking in Swahili and you wouldn’t know.”

There’s really no point to all this meandering, except that theatrical life can be far more incestuous, twisted and intriguing than just about anyone’s, with the possible exception of perhaps actual royalty.

~Mark Hughes Cobb

And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges!

12 Night poster

Image: A Beach, perhaps the one Viola finds herself shipwrecked upon. Event details below.

On Wednesday, Oct 2, Improbable Fictions will present Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the first staged reading we performed back in 2010. An excellent way to start out our ELEVENTH season! The details:

Fall 2019: Twelfth Night and Paradise Regained

Posted: August 2, 2019 by nrhelms in Uncategorized

Just a quick announcement: this fall, Improbable Fictions will present staged readings of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Milton’s Paradise Regained!

Twelfth Night: Wed, Oct 2, 7:30 pm, in 30 ten Hoor Hall, UA Campus

Paradise Regained: Wed, Oct 16, 7:30 pm, in 30 ten Hoor Hall, UA Campus

As always, IF is sponsored by the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, UA Dept. of English. Stay tuned for further details!

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(Sadly, Gustave Dore didn’t illustrate Paradise Regained, just Paradise Lost. You can find more of his work here: http://digital.lib.buffalo.edu/collection/LIB-SC001/ )

It’s that time of year when various actors’ fancies turn to Shakespeare. And the Rude Mechanicals is about to open its 17th season.

Measure for Measure poster

Our first show is very contemporary drama-comedy about power, corruption, and sexual assault, Measure for Measure, late comedy-drama of Shakespeare’s. Set in Vienna the story concerns the ruler of the city going on a vacation and putting the power of the law into the hands of Angelo, her assistant. Under the Duchess the city’s laws, especially concerning sexual activities, have not been enforced and Angelo is determined to right this wrong. However when he condemns a young man to die for impregnating his fiancée, his sister, Isabella, a novitiate at the convent, pleads with Angelo to show mercy to her brother, and Angelo gives her the price for that mercy: to give up her body in sin to Angelo. Very serious issues are brought forth, intermingled with Shakespeare’s comic fools, and his supreme language.

We will present Measure for Measure Wednesday-Saturday, May 29-June 1 down at the Park at Manderson Landing, lower level. Music begins at 7:30 and the play begins at 8pm. I have attached our poster. As before, it is FREE.

Then next month, Wednesday-Saturday June 26-29, we will bring you The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s early (possibly earliest) very silly and quite dizzying laugh out loud comedy of two sets of twins on a collision course, based on an earlier comedy by the Roman, Plautus.  Same times and information.

We look forward to seeing all of you in the park (Or the Allen Bales Theatre if bad weather forces us indoors).

Steve Burch
Professor, Playwriting, Theatre History
University of Alabama, Dept. of Theatre and Dance

Last night’s event was wonderfully acted and followed by a compelling discussion of the walls between us (physical and cultural). Here is a list of the scenes that were performed and some photos of the event, courtesy of MK Foster.

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We’re hoping to soon be able to offer IF’s performances in a high quality audio format, and “Early Modern Strangers” will be our first foray into that space. We’ll keep you informed as we know more.

Early Modern Strangers poster final

On April 3, 7:30 pm, at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center (620 Greensboro Ave, Tuscaloosa), Improbable Fictions will stage a selection of readings around the theme of strangers. Pre-show music begins at 7:00 pm. As always, IF events are free and open to the public.

Our inspiration piece for this event is Shakespeare’s monologue about immigration and empathy from the many-authored play Sir Thomas More. The play has gained a lot of attention in recent years, thanks in part to Sir Ian Mckellen, and we wanted to place this powerful passage in its early modern context, staging it alongside excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, The Tempest, and Titus Andronicus, as well as selections from medieval folklore, Mandeville,  and Brecht. Our hope is to start a conversation about what it means to be treated as a stranger in a strange land both then and now, and UA’s own Dr. Cordelia Ross will kick off a post-show Q&A with some thoughts from her own research on the subject.

We’re still gathering together readers for this event, so if you’re interested in taking part in an IF production, shoot me an email at nrhelms@ua.edu, or reach out to me on Twitter @nrhelms.

As always, IF productions are sponsored by the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, part of The University of Alabama Dept. of English.