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Propeller Theater Company to modernize Shakespeare

By Grace Prosniewski, For the Daily
Published February 19, 2013

One word: Shakespeare. Undisputedly one of the greatest literary and cultural influences of all time, his works have enthralled artists, scholars and, most importantly, audiences, for centuries. But Shakespearean works often seem to exist in a type of contradictory space. On one hand, they can be utterly intimidating, with “thees” and “thous,” the complex soliloquies and the failed ninth-grade English exams. On the other hand, there’s been a very real movement, spearheaded by publications such as No Fear Shakespeare, to make the works “accessible” to new generations. The challenge then, for current Shakespearean companies, is to work within the original text to facilitate and maintain a modern audience’s interest.

Twelfth Night & The Taming of the Shrew


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Propeller Theater Company looks to strike that delicate balance with its unique and strenuous physical approach. Propeller, an all-male Shakespeare company, strives to vigorously engage and explore the relationship between text and performance. There’s a strong narrative structure within Shakespearean plays that gives them an energy and rhythm.

“Most of the audiences of these plays were illiterate and yet they understood what was going on,” said Edward Hall, director and founder of Propeller. “There is a robustness, and a clarity, and a formula to how Shakespeare writes. People name each other at the beginning of scenes. They say where they are, who they are, what they want, and the scene discusses that. If somebody has a long speech, however complicated it gets, down at the bottom you’ll find two to four lines that sum it all up.”

Propeller performances utilize a full range of artistic dimensions, such as music, film animation and mask work to further examine the text. The actors themselves play a significant role in the actual logistics of a performance.

“I knew I wanted to take away some of the gifts of the modern indoor theater and give back to the performers the task of creating the performance experience,” Hall explained. “Scene changing, sound effects, music — all of those things would go back to the actors to author. We don’t use recorded sounds, and we even get the actors to light the scenes sometimes with torches or with lights they carry around. It seems to fit the burlesque, and certainly metaphoric energy, of Shakespeare’s plays.”

Propeller will perform two plays at the University, “Twelfth Night” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” “Twelfth Night” encompasses all the elements of Shakespeare’s best comedies: mistaken identities, skewed love connections and a wide array of intriguing characters. The story follows Viola, a young woman who has been shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. To gain employment, she disguises herself as a man named “Cesario” and begins to work for Duke Orsino. Orsino uses “Cesario” to send love messages to Lady Olivia. In true Shakespearean fashion, Viola falls in love with Orsino, Orsino continues to pine for Olivia and Olivia falls in love with “Cesario”. Shakespeare’s take on love and gender is surprisingly modern.

“He’s not saying gender is important. He’s saying the opposite: Gender is not important,” Hall said. “What’s important is love. We get very hung up on labels and sexuality when, in fact, we’re all talking about the same feelings. I like to think that bubbles up a little more readily to the surface in our production.”

“The Taming of the Shrew” centers on two wealthy sisters, Katherine and Bianca. The girls’ father, Baptista, decrees that Bianca may not marry before her shrewish older sister. Bianca’s suitors team up with Petruchio, who happens to be seeking a rich wife, in order to wed off Katherina. Petruchio tries to “tame” her through a series of comical but also rather cruel antics. Other modern productions have tried to play off the taming as ironic or planned, but Propeller takes a more traditional approach.

“We’ve embraced both the brutality in the play and also the high farce and comedy of the play,” Hall said. “The mixture of those two things makes for very interesting drama.”

So why, after all these years, do people still care about the bard?

“What’s lasting about his work is he makes it pertinent to you, today, nearly 500 years later, in a way that’s unexpected."