Death Trap: High School Shakespeare



We urgently need legislation banning productions of Shakespeare’s plays in high schools.  I  have nothing against The Bard.  I don’t think that his sophisticated explorations of the human condition should be withheld from adolescents.  They’re old enough to to discover that their futures will be fraught with complications when it comes to matters of love, ambition, politics, prejudice and greed.  Let them read the plays in their classrooms.  But I believe that high schools should no longer be allowed to put on yet another public massacring of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer’s Night Dream.  Let there be Not Much Ado About Anything.  I say this in the fervent wish to prevent cardiovascular events striking down parents forced to watch these dramatic bloodbaths.

I admit that this recommendation is based on a limited set of traumatic experiences at Lake Howell High School.  But I fear that even if most high school productions are just one quarter as injurious to the physical and psychological welfare of their audiences as Lake Howell’s, that a severe threat to public health is imminent. Secondary school theatrics should be limited to musicals and Neil Simon plays for safety’s sake.

My first encounter with a disastrous production of Shakespeare happened when I attended a back to back performance at Lake Howell of Julius Caesar and Antony and  Cleopatra.  The director thought that we needed to hear both in one sitting to understand that period of Roman history, but was forced to crudely condense both plays to cram them into a combined running time of two hours.  The stage wasn’t miked, the students hadn’t been taught to project, and the theater had the acoustics of a bus station.  In other words, the audience could hear about half of the lines spoken.  Which was an unintended act of mercy.  The verses that could be heard were recited woodenly as if the actors were growing ever more bored as each new syllable was uttered.  The part of Julius Caesar was given to a boy with a protruding Adam’s apple and acne, and when he was assassinated he looked peeved more than anguished.  He wore the same expression as the knives plunged downward as that of a teenager sulking after being told that he was grounded for a month.  Brutus was about four feet ten inches tall. As he struggled to decide whether or not to help kill Caesar, his friend and mentor, he emoted his painful state of indecision by frowning like a constipated person trying to move his bowels.  I don’t remember much about Antony and Cleopatra beyond two things:  the boy played Antony the way Travolta played Danny Zuko in the movie Grease; and the second act was interrupted, for no apparent reason, by a Las Vegas style girly review danced to the tune of Black Velvet by a troupe of barefoot young women wearing lingerie and heavy mascara.

I know that none of these minor horrors appear to you to have the potency to cause harmful impacts on the health of the audience, but you have to consider the plight of the adults.  The ones who had children in the plays had to grimly witness their sons and daughters participate in theatrical abortions while deluding themselves that their little Becky or Johnny wasn’t as atrocious as the rest of the cast.  The strain, as I sat next to them, was palpable.  And even though I didn’t have a child in the cast I too suffered damage to my well being.  I’m sure that my lifespan was shortened from watching these two plays.

I flirted with having a stroke as I sat through Julius Caesar.  My children were safely beside me in the audience, but our seats were among a group of parents of the actors.  I had to violently suppress the urge on several occasions to howl with laughter.  My shoulders began to shake, tears ran down my face and I almost fell out of my seat.  Annie and Alan looked at me with concern as I appeared to be quietly having a psychotic spasm.  My wife reassured them by kicking me in the leg and hissing, “He’s trying not to laugh.”  The moment that nearly ruptured my spleen began when Brutus (the constipated boy who stood four feet ten) stabbed himself with a rubber sword that wobbled as he stuck it under his armpit. A lumbering jock playing Mark Antony watched nearby.  The hulking lummox then stood over Brutus’ somewhat motionless body and solemnly intoned, “Brutus–there was a man.”  I almost blacked out as I barely managed to hold in, “Whah-hah-hah-bwahhah!”  When I got home I had to lie down for an hour until my pulse returned to normal.

I witnessed another parent suffer from a similar episode of distress, but his suffering was caused by anger.  It was induced during a performance of Macbeth so horrible that words cannot fully describe its staggering lurch from the encounter with the witches to the battle at Dunsinane.  Poor Tom couldn’t flee when he felt the first flames of rage erupt.  He had a son in the play.  The veins in his neck swelled in the second scene, and as the play progressed his face gradually colored until it became a deep, purplish red.  He muttered to himself and clenched his fists and rose half out of his seat on a number of occasions.  At the end I think that he wanted to storm the stage, chase the bowing actors off into the wings and throttle the director.

The bad costumes, poor sets, and awkwardly delivered lines didn’t set him off.  The additions to the staging of the play such as Banquo’s ghost (costumed and made up as Frankenstein’s monster) spilling his guts (cooked spaghetti) into a punch bowl didn’t  enrage him.  The witches miming “In the Afterlife” by the Squirrel Nut Zippers while playing with hand puppets around a cauldron may have contributed.  A voice-over recitation of a section of “The Telltale Heart” by Poe was disturbing.  It was coupled with the witches creeping up on a little boy.  Before the crones attacked he turned to the audience and displayed building blocks with letters spelling out, “RED RUM.”  The link between “The Shining” and the Scottish play was never explained, but Tom seemed to weather that incongruity fairly well.  And the fact that the director, who admitted in the program notes that he had written this revision of the play, had decided to cast both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as women didn’t quite push Tom over the edge.  It bothered me that there was no indication whether the two were engaged in a lesbian relationship, or whether one had gone through an unlikely gender transformation, but Tom’s anger wasn’t provoked by this oddity.

What truly outraged him was that Macbeth wore a flesh colored body suit under her costumes.  The staging of the play called on the young actress to approach the front of the stage on at least three occasions to change her clothes by first stripping down to the body suit.  Her figure was so tightly encased that I had to look away and tell myself that I wasn’t really looking at the nude body of a seventeen year old girl. I was shocked but not surprised. Poor Tom, having witnessed fewer debacles on the Lake Howell stage, wasn’t fully prepared for this assault on his sense of decency and propriety.

I wanted to take him out for a beer afterward to calm him down, but decided to let him go his own way. I feared that alcohol might set him off on a blood soaked rampage truly worthy of the play.  And I had to step away from him to tell my daughter, who had played several minor roles, that the production had been interesting.

The next time I saw Tom he had developed a nervous tic.  It could be aggravated by saying, “Macbeth”.  I was in no better shape.   I suffered from heart palpitations and fits of uncontrolled laughter whenever I encountered a passing reference to Rome and Julius Caesar.

It’s been seven years since the performance of Macbeth, but we two are still much diminished as functioning members of our community.  He is in intensive aversion therapy. I am on blood thinners and tranquilizers.

Don’t let this happen to you.  Stop this scourge before it’s too late.  Verily.





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