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Communique: Gospel of St. Mark + Twelfth Night From Alchemical Theatre

St.Mark by Mantegna (l) and the Cobbe Shakespeare

Alchemical Theatre Company is focused on the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries-including the authors of the King James Bible. On Saturday, 6/9, the Gospel of St. Mark will be presented as a dramatic reading at St. Jude MCC Church. Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" follows in July.

Alchemical Theatre's Artistic Director Christopher Marino talks about these performances above; see our extended conversation below. 

The Gospel of St. Mark performance does not require a ticket and is "pay what you will." It's the first presentation of Alchemical's King James Initiative; more readings are on the way.

SATURDAY, June 9 @ 4:00pm, St. Jude MCC: The Gospel of St. Mark. TUESDAY, June 12, 6:00pm-8:30pm, Your Pie: Shakespeare Love & Food. THURSDAY, July 12- Saturday, July 28, UNCW SRO Theater: Twelfth Night.

"Twelfth Night" is onstage in UNCW's SRO Theatre (Cultural Arts Building) June 12-28. This black box theater allows Marino to use promenade staging.  Tickets are available online and through at the University Box Office, 910-962-3500.

Prior to the show, on Tuesday, June 12, a Twelfth Night "Food of Love" fundraiser is at Your Pieon Oleander. Alchemical Theatre will receive 20% of sales at Your Pie from 6:00pm - 8:30pm. Actors will perform two 25 minute shows celebrating Shakespeare's musings on love and food. 

Gina Gambony: Christopher Marino, what are you doing this summer?

Christopher Marino: Well … this Saturday [June 9] at 4:00 at St Jude's MCC Church, Ashley Strand, a company member and professional classical actor is going to be doing a reading of the Gospel of St Mark from the King James Bible. Why we were interested in it is King James is a contemporary texts to the plays of Shakespeare. They started to write the Bible in 1605, completed it in 1611. It is probably, just behind the complete works, one of the largest sources of English idiom, words, expressions, phrases in our language. On that level, we're very interested in it.

There was a classical actor years ago named Alec McCowen who toured this piece as a performance for about 30 years. It ended up on Broadway, and he played all over the world. For us, it seems like a really great text to explore. The way that Alex described it was that it was like his very own undiscovered Shakespeare text. We're going to start by doing the gospel as a performative reading, see how it plays to an audience, see how we want to explore it, and then conceivably develop it into something that Ashley or another actor or several actors can go out and tour.

Gina: Can you tell us, for folks who are not familiar with that book, tell us about it.

Credit WHQR/gg
Christopher Marino

Christopher: Prior to the King James Bible, there were two larger sources. You had the Tyndale Bible and the Geneva. I'm not really well steeped in the history of how these bibles were developed, but when James came into power in England - Elizabeth's dad, James, was formerly James VI of Scotland and then becomes James I of England - he felt that a Bible needed to happen in this crazy new language, English. One that reflected a little bit more the Anglican point of view in terms of the texts. So, he commissioned a group of writers - poets, some theorize playwrights, and some people have even said they believe Shakespeare had a hand in creating this text.

Gina: What do you think about that?

Christopher: I don't know. I am probably going to misquote the Psalm, but I believe it is Psalm 48. So if you Google it, you'll be able to find the exact number. [It is Psalm 46.] In this Psalm - if it is 48 - if you count 48 words back from the end, it will say "Spear." 48 words from the beginning, it says "Shake," and he was 48 when it was written. So I mean, it's a heck of a coincidence.

Gina: [Laughs] Who found that?

Christopher: I have no idea. I have no idea.

Gina: Is it one of those things where it's like-take your birthday, subtract five, add five, divided by two, and then times by two, and it's the same day?

Christopher: That's right, yeah. You can go down a real rabbit hole with this because there are theories that there are Baconian Ciphers in the complete works of Shakespeare that point to Francis Bacon being the true author - and even lead to buried gold on Oak Island and Nova Scotia. You can really go down a very deep, very dark passageway with all of this stuff. But I do think, if I had to theorize and say for the sake of argument a playwright was involved, we do see this with modern religion in terms of how people are trying to market it.

Because you do have to market it. They use frequently, if they're forward thinking, the vocabulary of culture. Part of that is film. It's music.  It is online content, videos, all of that. So, it seems to me that if you're going to try to create a popular - or what you hope is a popular work based on a religious text - you're going to use the medium of the popular at art of the day. That's plays. There are sections of the King James that are written in iambic pentameter. It's the same form. It seems to me it's quite a coincidence if they just said, "Hey, you know iambic pentameter is kind of a thing and people write plays in it, so let's just go ahead and write a lot of the Bible in it too." To me, that's exciting because for us as a theater company that delves into classical work, you're always looking for new ways in new material.

So, the King James to us is really interesting text. Ashley's been working on it and didn't know it at all. As he's been working on it, he said this is a really exciting text. This is actually a really interesting thing to do. It's kind of funny in places, it's got point of view - it certainly has dramatic content to it. I think, for us, it's exciting because we can bring an entirely new audience to classical work and by extension to the work of Shakespeare, too.

Gina: On Saturday, it's not the whole New Testament …

Christopher: No. This will be only the Gospel of St. Mark. This is the shortest of the gospels. When Alec McCowen did it, part of what was exciting about his performance was that it was not an adaptation. It was every single word in the gospel of Saint Mark in the King James Bible from word one to the final. Done as a performance but a very simple performance. It was just Alec, a table, a chair, and he had a Bible with him just for effect. To us, that type of storytelling's very exciting. To go into a group that has an investment in this text over and above its literary merit, and for us to come in as actors and facilitators of storytelling and conversations, that's a really interesting marriage. That's why we're doing it this weekend. We will probably continue to develop it. So, anybody that comes to this weekend is going to see our first time doing it. That's exciting. 

I think, for us it's interesting to look at the text for its beauty. It's the care and precision that's gone into the language. Religious conversations around the Bible are important, but they tend to cloud the beauty of the text. It's exciting to go back to what's on that page. The poetry is beautiful, the writing is beautiful. Really give a nod to the people that came before us - like Alec McCowen - or even the idea that this is, arguably, probably the second, or in some estimations, first most important text in our language.

As a classical company, it would be a mistake of ours to not embrace that because our, because our texts are so much about language. Why wouldn't we go to the next big source of our language?

Gina: Next is "Twelfth Night.” 

Christopher: Yeah. This summer, we're doing "Twelfth Night" as part of the Lumina Festival. We were associated with them last year where we did "Much Ado About Nothing." The difference this year is that we're doing "Twelfth Night" in what's called the SRO Theater, which is a black box theater that allows us to do this production in something called promenade staging. This means that the audience can move around in the space if they so choose. The show will take place in and amongst the audience. For people that that is not terribly appealing to, and there may be some, there will be some designated seating. It's not a stand and watch the show the whole time. It's more about having flexibility. If you want to go up and sit on the stage, you can do it.

It will affect the play in terms of the relationship to the audience because it's nice and close. You get to really play nuance because "Twelfth Night" most likely some of it's first outings were in halls of either great houses or Temple Inn. It's really created to have a very close relationship to the audience. If you do it in a big space and you got to really push out to an audience, I think it ruins that play. Our production is, as all of our work, very tech centered but exciting in that way. Then you have this immersive element which allows people to kind of move around, see things from a different perspective, and experience the play in an entirely different way.

Gina: For people who aren't familiar with "Twelfth Night," tell us a little bit about it. Give us the wikipedia thing that people would read beforehand. Also, have you started rehearsals for this yet?

Christopher: Sort of. Some of the local actors I've started to work with - Paul Teal who's playing Sebastian, one of the twins (a lot of people know Paul from Opera House, Thalian, and has done a lot of work on Wilmington stages), and another actor, Nick Battist, who I've worked with before and is great. He's playing Antonio. It just so happened that they're both local. We just started working on text yesterday.

It's a tricky one to do a concise synopsis. Bottom line is there's a shipwreck. There is a set of twins - a male and female. They are close-ish, as identical as a male/female twin pairing can get. They're separated. They both end up different parts of this territory. The one twin - the female - her name is Viola, and the male twin is Sebastian. Viola decides to go to work for a duke named Orsino. In the process of working for him has to dress as a boy named Cesario. While working for Orsino, falls in love with him, but then is also charged with wooing another woman, named Olivia who Orsino is in love with, on behalf of Orsino. So, you have a girl dressed up as a boy having to woo another female for the man that she's actually secretly in love with. There's another side plot with the comedic stuff. Sir Toby Belch, who's kind a ne'er-do-well knight. He has a rube knight that he hangs out with named Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is really just using him for his money.

Then, we have one of the other central storylines of the play which is the setup between a character named Feste and a character named Malvolio. Malvolio's a Puritan who's also in love with Olivia and believes that Olivia should marry him. Feste is a character about festival and joy and celebration. Shakespeare really pits those two against each other because, in the time that the play was written, we have a lot of people walking around like Malvolio. It's interesting that festival wins at the end of the play. It is a comedy that integrates a lot of mistaken identity. Eventually, Sebastian gets mistaken for Viola. He ends up marrying or being asked to marry Olivia, which he goes through with. Olivia thinks Sebastian is Viola. Orsino has some very complicated feelings about Viola even though he doesn't know that violence a woman - but definitely starts to fall in love.

One of the central messages in it is loving somebody's heart. I think people fall in love with Sebastian and Violet because of their heart. It doesn't really matter what's on the outside. You see this also with Antonio, who also seems to be falling in love or at least a deep infatuation with Sebastian. He's terribly confused by that, but it's really because Sebastian has a great heart. It all works out in the end. I think It's one of [Shakespeare's] more perfect comedies. Some of the other comedies have very strange things that don't quite add up. You have "Measure for Measure" which is "a problem play." Twelfth Night doesn't really have any of that.

The only storyline that isn't really wrapped up at the end is Antonio's. Every production is like, "What do we do with Antonio at the end because he's still standing there in handcuffs?" We will figure that out. We're setting ours in the Weimar Republic in this place that is reflective of some of the texture of the play - which is about extremity art, lots of longings and passions, music. There's a theatricality to it. A great group of people coming to do it.

Gina: Briefly, how are you going to rehearse your actors to prepare for the unstable performance environment?

Christopher: Two things on that. At least about a third of the cast has done this show with me before. Three of them are from my 2003 production. I have another actor coming in from my 1999 production. They're already pretty familiar with the trajectory of the roles. For me, I gravitate toward actors that have very good relationships with the audience. That shouldn't throw them because we will factor in that they might have a playing space that's only five feet wide. How do you work with that? We're lucky because our set is already done. Day one, we will be on in that space, and we'll get to play and explore and find how we want to utilize this great sort of playground space.

Gina: That's going to be fun for sure.

Christopher: "Twelfth Night" opens July 12th - so Twelfth on the 12th. Pretty easy to remember. Our Make Trouble Training Group is going to show two different productions. One is Romeo and Juliet, the other is Love's Labour's Lost. I'm not entirely sure of the Love's Labour's date, but the Seahawk Fam Performance of Romeo and Juliet is July 26th. The plan for the moment is that that is a sensory friendly performance because the play's an hour long. It is really targeted for younger audiences - teens and a little bit younger. This next week, Tuesday the 12th at 6:00, at Your Pie restaurant - that's at Oleander and College - we're going to be doing Shakespeare's Food of Love. That's a performance of scenes, speeches, sonnets, and songs on the themes of food and love in Shakespeare.

Your Pie has been gracious enough to host us as part of a fundraiser. They donate a portion of their sales to us for that evening. So, if people want to eat pizza and see some really wonderful and fun performances, especially with the Shakespeare text, definitely come out. It doesn't cost you anything. We only asked that you buy food of some sort if you want to donate to the cause later on down the line and help support Twelfth night. We'd be grateful for that. It should be a great evening.

The scenes and the speeches are all centered around the ideas of love. But the way that we've crafted it is very close to a form of improv called Lauren, which is if there are two people performing, one person leaves, one person stays and another scene starts. We do do these hand offs. That will be part of it, but we'll have people singing songs of the period that are trained in opera. Then speeches and sonnets, but sonnets that are directed to people as if they're another speech.

Gina: And that's June 12th, 6:00 at Your Pie.

Christopher: It's at the corner of Oleander and College. It's in the same plaza as Moe's. Jada, who runs it, dedicates every Tuesday night to a different not-for-profit.

Transcript editing by Production Assistant Caroline Devries.