Daniel Berger-Jones and Michael Anderson were rooting around for a unique way to tackle the work of William Shakespeare when they suddenly had an epiphany: Let’s just jump to the good stuff. Let’s cut right to the fights.
“Initially, we thought about doing the fight scenes just because the fights in Shakespeare are so much fun,” says Berger-Jones. “But as we started working on the idea, we realized there’s at least one fight scene in almost every Shakespeare play. What does that say about violence, in his plays and in society? And why do people resort to violence? That’s something you have to ask if you stage any of these plays.”
Berger-Jones and company now present “A Palpable Hit: Shakespeare’s Best Fight Scenes,” running Nov. 25 to Dec. 11, in the Durrell Theater at the Cambridge YMCA in Central Square, Cambridge.
They’ll present the Bard’s best battles, including Hamlet vs. Laertes, Petruccio vs. Katharine, Hillary vs. The Donald.
OK, that last one isn’t part of the show: Shakespeare didn’t live long enough to fictionalize the epic beat-down known as the 2016 presidential campaign. But it seems relevant that Berger-Jones stages these bloody battles only weeks after the conclusion of a presidential race in which the attacks were so vicious and so personal that they were sometimes hard to watch.
Berger-Jones admits that he thought about the election while rehearsing “Palpable Hit.”
“People are [politically] passionate to levels that feel unhealthy,” he says, talking on the phone on Election Day. “Politics should be about a dialog that leads people to reach a compromise. But it doesn’t seem like that’s the goal anymore. Now the goal is just to win.”
Winners and losers abound in these onstage battles. But it’s a testament to the work of Shakespeare - and an insight into the dubious strategy of declaring war -- that those who win the battle in these scenes often went on to lose the war.
Take Othello, for example. He overpowers the fair and fragile Desdemona, but as he chokes the life from her, his problems don’t end, they’re just beginning. It turns out that violence doesn’t always solve a problem; more often it creates it.
But not all the scenes in “Palpable Hit” are dark. These characters are doing battle for the full range of motivations.
“They fight for glory, God, revenge, anger, jealousy, and women,” says Berger-Jones. “Every reason that might stir someone to violence is represented somewhere in the Shakespeare canon, from truly disturbing scenes of violence to hilarious confrontations between clowns.”
Fight scenes in “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It” and “Taming of the Shrew” are all played for laughs.
“It’s interesting how much we rely on violence for humor,” says Berger-Jones. “I guess that’s obvious to anyone who’s seen Bugs Bunny. Violence is often associated with tragedy, but onstage, it sure is funny to watch two people beat each other up.”
Let’s check out some of the matches on the fight card.
Othello vs. Desdemona: One of Shakespeare’s most haunting and horrible scenes comes at the conclusion of “Othello,” as audiences brace themselves for the inevitable. “Desdemona seems like such a strong woman throughout the play, and then in that last scene she just kind of rolls over and dies,” says Berger-Jones. “We’ve restaged the fight in a way that we think is more interesting.”
Macbeth vs. Young Siward: Young Siward thinks he’s capable of defeating the mighty Macbeth. He’s not.
Viola vs. Aguecheek: Neither of these two really wants to fight in “Twelfth Night,” they’re just being egged on by the peanut gallery, like some schoolyard scuffle. Their reluctance to fight is sure to resonate with cowards everywhere.
Joan of Arc vs. the King of France: Joan is told she can’t lead an army because she’s a woman. She says, “Oh yeah? Watch me kick some royal ass.” (That’s not a direct quote.) If she proves she’s battle-tested, she gets the gig.
Richard III vs. Lady Anne: Wait, Richard III vs. Lady Anne? They don’t fight. Berger-Jones admits this one is a bit of a stretch, but he thinks the scene is so freaky that it borders on violent. Richard has killed Lady Anne’s husband, and now he tries to get her to marry him as he makes his cold-blooded move on the throne. It’s one of the most disturbing examples of pitching woo that’s ever been written.
These synopses may serve as a primer, but Berger-Jones was intrigued to discover that it’s really not necessary to provide context.
“Many of these scenes occur at the climax of the play,” says Berger-Jones, director of seven of the 12 scenes in the show, which should run about 90 minutes. “As you work on them, you realize how effectively Shakespeare conveys the reason for the fight right in the scene. There’s no need to explain it.”
It all sounds like the kind of show that might help introduce Shakespeare to a younger audience.
“That’s the hope,” says Berger-Jones. “How do you build new audiences? How do you convince young people that a 400-year-old play is still relevant?”
Well, it turns out, Shakespeare does the heavy lifting. Early in rehearsals, Berger-Jones was reminded that if you just get out of the way of Shakespeare, the magic happens.
“The scenes take care of themselves in terms of entertainment value,” he says. “Shakespeare conveys the full range of human emotions. He goes from fart jokes to fight scenes that are so powerful they make you cry. And it’s all written with a poetry that’s still off the chain.”
“A Palpable Hit: Shakespeare’s Best Fight Scenes”
WHEN: Nov. 25 to Dec. 11
WHERE: Durrell Theater at the Cambridge YMCA in Central Square, Cambridge
TICKETS: $25 or $40