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The eyes have it

Last Sunday the University of California, Irvine, honored Robert Cohen and his wife Lorna with a plaque for their 50 years on campus. The dinner ceremony included a performance in UCI's Claire Trevor Theatre that included alums who are now Broadway performers. Now Professor Emeritus, Cohen continues to review, write books, and speak.

Robert Cohen, directingI was introduced to Shakespeare by Miss Margaret Casey, my English teacher in 10th grade at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. She assigned Julius Caesar, and I was overwhelmed by Caesar’s "Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never tastes of death but once." At my summer camp the previous summer, campers had presented the then-popular one-act play, The Valiant, which I adored, and which cited the Caesar’s famous line, and I really began to understand what Shakespeare had brought to the theatre. Two years later she was my 12th grade teacher and led us brilliantly in Hamlet and I was a Shakespearean idol forever. She was a phenomenal teacher, and the advocate of a phenomenal playwright.

Shakespeare was absolutely fascinated with the eyes of his characters. He uses the word "eyes" 585 times in his plays, which is far more than he mentions the other sensory parts of our bodies – "hands" (326), "ears" (176), "noses" (14) and "feet" (57) – put together. He uses the words "look" and "see" three times more than "hear" or "hears." Though his plays are famed for their spoken language, they are far more concentrated on what their characters see than what they hear.

Cohen_LearMoreover, Shakespeare was extraordinary in describing his characters’ eyes. Playwrights rarely mention the eyes of their characters, and when they do they usually only qualify them by color: this or that character has blue eyes or green eyes or brown eyes - and maybe on occasion big eyes or squinty eyes. Shakespeare, by contrast, has written no less than 136 adjectives to describe his characters’ eyes, and only one of them (Tybalt’s green eyes) relates to color.

I have listed more than 130 eye adjectives he has used, in my book Shakespeare on Theatre.

None of this should be surprising: it is mainly our eyes that generate our passions, welcome our friends, analyze our competitors, alert us to dangers, and judge the human beings that cross our paths.

And it is with their eyes that actors make their major contact with the other actors – and hence with the other characters. Even though Shakespeare’s plays are intensely verbal, it is what his characters see rather than what they hear, or smell, or physically feel that truly convey their personas to the (also seeing) audience.

And when we see the eyes of others, we see into and we analyze their deeper personalities. As Cicero (106-43 B.C.) said, "Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi," "The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter" or, as more commonly noted today, "The eyes are the mirror of the soul."


To be Hamlet

David Denman, the veteran actor we remember from "Parenthood" and as Pam's ex-fiancé on "The Office," is on CBS' "Angel From Hell" and the upcoming Cinemax series "Outcast." He also co-starred on Michael Bay's 13 Hours earlier this year. From June 23 to July 16, it's back to the boards and Bard, for Shakespeare Orange County's Hamlet

David Denman as Petruchio and Katie Amanda Keane as Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew" at Shakespeare Orange County.Shakespeare has always been one of the great loves of my life. I've seen every play he's written and I've performed in dozens of them. My favorite experience on stage was at SOC playing Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. It had been years since I had been on stage and I was nervous about tackling one of Shakespeare's more controversial plays, but that production and that cast was extraordinary. I'll never forgotten that experience. Hamlet will probably be the most challenging role of my career, but I can't think of a better place to take that journey than with Peter Uribe, John Walcutt and the entire company of Shakespeare Orange County.

Above, Denman as Petruchio and Katie Amanda Keane as Kate in Shakespeare Orange County's 2007 The Taming of the Shrew.


Seasoning with Shakespeare

The Artistic Directors of A Noise Within, where Damaso Rodriguez' Romeo and Juliet continues through May 8, talk of what goes into their season selection, and what went into their love of Shakespeare.

Julia and Geoff ElliottOur love of Shakespeare was cemented during our time at the American Conservatory Theatre. Its Founder, Bill Ball, instilled in us a loving reverence for these great plays. As performers, we discovered a muscularity and dynamism in the verse that creates an immediacy and excitement when it is embraced. It was there that we discovered that Shakespeare has more insight and wisdom about our lives than any other playwright. How to live, how to forgive, and how to understand the human condition.

Helen Sadler and Adam Haas Hunter in 'Cymbeline' at A Noise Within in 2012. Photo by Craig SchwartzWe produce one or two Shakespeare plays each season and their selection is a very organic process – one that is often deeply connected to our 21st Century preoccupations. Some event – whether personal or global – triggers something and we feel compelled to explore it onstage. Our upcoming production of King Lear, in Spring 2017, came out of a deeply personal experience with a friend who was ravished by dementia. We watched the devastating effects of the disease on her and her close family. It was a devastating experience to watch a person lose herself, and family lose an anchor. We remember leaving her memory care facility and saying to each other: "Oh my God, it’s like King Lear." And it began – both the process of exploring this play through this unique prism and the ability to use this great piece of art to come to terms with our personal loss.

Julia: I was introduced to Shakespeare in 10th grade it was Julius Caesar. I attended a high school in Miami, Florida, which was about 99 percent Hispanic. Our English teacher handed out copies of JC and played a BBC recording while we attempted to follow along. No guidance, no context: just the text spoken (in what sounded like a foreign language with silly accents) and a story that seemingly had very little to do with any of us. Years later, as an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, the RSC visited our campus and presented an evening of Shakespeare "Love Scenes" and that experience truly changed my life. I don’t know if I quite fully understood all that I had experienced, but I knew it had touched me deeply. I remember leaving the theater and wanting to both cry and dance. And that began my love affair with Shakespeare.

Above, Helen Sadler and Adam Haas Hunter in Bart DeLorenzo's 'Cymbeline' at A Noise Within in 2012, another of the company's outstanding Shakespeare staging. [Read Review]. Photo by Craig Schwartz


Enduring Shakespeare

Amy Freed's play The Monster Builder just finished a successful run in San Francisco. She recently completed a "translation" of Taming of the Shrew for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Play-On Project and her full adaptation of that play will go into development this year. Ms. Freed is also the author of The Beard of Avon, a comic wrestle with the Shakespeare authorship question.

FreedAmy_288x375Shakespeare never really goes away. One summer I read my way through every word of his extant writing. I knew his plays, had worked on them in many different ways, but never read all of them in one long cavalcade. I think that was the first time I really understood the consistency of quality of his thought. His words are the perhaps the only way that the comfort of philosophy in the old-time sense reaches me.

Richard Doyle, Douglas Weston and Rene Augeson in the world premiere of Amy Freed's 'Beard of Avon.'I keep discovering passages that land personally. Most recently? This morning I was working on preparing the text of The Tempest for a directing project. And I got unexpectedly taken by the lovely personality of Gonzalo, the honest old counselor shipwrecked with the bad guys. Where they see flies, desert, barren emptiness, Gonzalo sees abundance, green grass and paradise. I had been reading a lot of theories prior, about where Shakespeare located his island, but Gonzalo demonstrates its real location – he sees sweetness because of his sweetness, they see death and sterility because that is their inner landscape. It made me mindful. Shakespeare lasts partly, I think, because he's one of the voices that we can still understand that conveys real philosophical and ethical value without the polarizing framework of religion.

Above inset, Richard Doyle, Douglas Weston and Rene Augesen in the world premiere of The Beard of Avon , South Coast Repertory.

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