Here’s an example of just how creative — and desperate — some thespians can get when a pandemic curtails their performances and sends them home in gloom: Shakespearean sock puppets on video.
Vancouver’s Stephanie Crowley said she has been a “theater addict since 13 when I starred in my first school play.” While in college, she studied with England’s Royal Shakespeare Company. She joined Portland’s new Canon Shakespeare Company a few years ago, after she and her husband moved here from California.
Crowley managed to perform one juicy role, Queen Gertrude in “Hamlet,” before the coronavirus pandemic struck and everything stopped.
But dedicated thespians have a tough time staying away from each other and not showing off, Crowley said with a laugh. Before long, a livestreamed Shakespeare reading group started meeting weekly.
“When actors don’t have a show to do, we get a little itchy,” said Crowley, who is also a yoga instructor and marketing consultant. “It was a way to keep connected and keep creative things going.”
If You Stream
“Titus Andarnicus: A Sock Puppet Play” by the Canon Shakespeare Company
Adapted by Alec Henneberger from “Titus Andronicus” by William Shakespeare
To view the 92-minute play, make a donation at www.canonpdx.org/donate
The group did silly stuff like show up in elaborate costumes for movie-themed Shakespeare readings, like a version of “The Comedy of Errors” starring characters from the Harry Potter films.
One day, Crowley blurted out the silliest idea of all: “Let’s do a sock-puppet version of ‘Titus Andronicus.’”
“Titus Andronicus” is infamous for being the Bard’s most grotesquely brutal and violent tragedy. It’s teeming with graphic murders, beheadings and mutilations, as well as one off-stage rape. The story follows Roman patriarch Titus as he returns from war with a prize, the enslaved Queen of the Goths, who stops at nothing to exact revenge for her family’s death. While Titus strives to rise above his past and Roman politics, there’s no escaping what he’s already set in motion.
Crowley knew that a sock-puppet “Titus Andronicus” was a perfectly ridiculous idea. So why did a senior member of the Canon company urge her to pursue it?
“Titus Andronicus” is a better play than it’s usually given credit for, Crowley said, as its shocking violence overshadows an intriguing story about honor, obedience, revenge and loss. Shakespeare’s own audience loved the play in the late 1500s, but later theatergoers lost their stomach for its vivid horrors.
“I never had any interest in ‘Titus Andronicus’ because you cannot get away from the violence,” she said. “I think I’m a fairly empathetic person, and when I see a lot of violence on stage or film, especially when it gets detailed or realistic, I get upset because I don’t like to see people hurt.”
But nobody gets harmed in a sock-puppet tragedy.
“It’s a purposely nonrealistic version of this very violent show,” Crowley said. “Make the violence take a back seat, and the story comes out.
“There’s this whole thing about a man who served his country, and all he wants to do now is retire, but there’s a battle over who’s going to be the next emperor, and he has to choose,” she said. “He can’t let go of the old ways. He can’t not win.”
Crowley took the lead on making socks into 39 Shakespearean characters — Romans and Goths, soldiers and senators, nobles and clowns. Shakespeare’s original five-act script was adapted into a 92-minute version by the Canon Shakespeare Company’s Alec Henneberger. Five actors, including Crowley, play many different puppet roles. Elizabeth McNear, the 4-year-old daughter of one company member, created crayon-and-marker backdrops. Genevieve Larson edited all the separate bits of dialogue into the final show.
The whole thing is stuffed full of stocking puns and visual jokes. (Imagine sock puppets wielding swords and shooting arrows.) Shakespeare’s title has been reknitted as “Titus Andarnicus.”
“Shakespeare nerds are going to really dig it, but people who know nothing about Shakespeare will enjoy it, too,” Crowley said. “There’s a lot of beautiful stuff in this play. And our version, we think it’s freaking hilarious.”
A donation of any amount to the Canon Shakespeare Company gets you access to “Titus Andarnicus” on YouTube.