StageStruck: “This Ugly Beauty”

“The thing about the First Folio,” says Sheila Siragusa, “is the fact that the text is such a big fucking mess.” But that’s precisely what she loves about it. The first compilation of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1623, “is filled with errors” which were cleaned up and “corrected” by editors in later centuries to create more readable, coherent and (ostensibly) more accurate presentations of the plays’ texts.

Siragusa, however, is one of a band of scholars, directors and dramaturgs (she is all three) who find in the very messiness of the Folio not only meaty challenges but guideposts for performance. This approach seeks to rescue the plays from what she calls “the museumification of Shakespeare.” She distinguishes between the literary tradition, in which the text is meant to be read and analyzed, and the “rhetorical tradition” in which Shakespeare actually worked.

The plays, of course, were written to be spoken on stage, not read in the classroom, and Siragusa argues that the unedited First Folio seems “messy” partly because its apparently inconsistent capitalization, punctuation and versification are actually clues for actors: what to emphasize, when to pause, how to speak a given line. Viewing the text in this way, she says, gets beneath the deceptive obscurity of the Folio’s archaic spelling and messy syntax to actually achieve a clearer, more vibrant performance.

The August Company, the local troupe Siragusa cofounded, is currently rehearsing Twelfth Night. Not only are they working from the Folio’s original text, they’re opening up the whole creative process as a hands-on case study. Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery is primarily a visual art exhibition space, but one that also welcomes performances. So this month’s bare-bones production there is part of a living installation that reveals “the guts of what we’re doing” and seeks to demystify the First Folio itself.

Starting this week, the public is invited into the gallery for “text mining”—digging into the Folio’s opulent mess with members of the company, alongside an exhibit of artifacts, writings and pieces of text posted on the walls, “with the encouragement to speak them aloud.” Even after the show opens this weekend the explorations continue, including open rehearsals, making the whole process a transparent continuum.

For Siragusa, this approach aligns itself perfectly with Twelfth Night‘s plot, in which a woman shipwrecked on an alien shore disguises herself as a man for self-protection. “The premise of the play is that if you try to be what you are not, you’re obscuring your real beauty”—which is just what she thinks happened when the Folio’s text was “cleaned up.” Likewise, the performance itself strips away all conventional theatrical artifice. There are no sets, no theatrical lighting, not even a traditional backstage—the actors are visible even when they’re offstage. In this way, Siragusa says, “the audience can see the real beauty that we’re working with, this ugly beauty.”

Twelfth Night: A.P.E. Gallery, 126 Main St., Northampton. Performances June 16-17, 22-23; open rehearsals Tues.-Thurs., 7-10 p.m., June 12-21; text mining Tues.-Sat., 1-4 p.m,. June 12-23. Tickets and info,

Contact Chris Rohmann at

Author: Chris Rohmann

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