Addison — When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival started planning its three-year Shakespeare translation commissioning project, called Play On!, the goal for all the plays was to have more than 50 percent of them translated by women, and more than 50 percent playwrights of color. By the time the project’s planners asked San Antonio-raised playwright Virginia Grise to participate, there were two plays still unspoken for: Romeo and Juliet and All’s Well That Ends Well.
The former, of course, is Shakespeare’s best-known play, one of his most-produced. All’s Well is neither of those. It is one of Willy Shakes’ so-called “problem plays,” written in his middle period, somewhere between Hamlet and Othello. And it was Grise’s choice. (Hansol Jung picked up R&J.)
“I felt like everyone thought I would do Romeo and Juliet,” she says, “but I picked All’s Well.”
Although there has not been an announcement of when and where the final productions of the 39 translations into contemporary English will be — The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III were added to the 37 that appear in most Shakespeare anthologies — the works have begun receiving staged readings and workshops around the country. North Texas gets its first taste of the project as Grise’s All’s Well That Ends Well is one of four new works receiving professional staged readings at WaterTower Theatre’s first Detour: A Festival of New Works, running March 1-4 at the Addison Theatre Centre. The event is Artistic Director Joanie Schultz’s answer to replacing WTT’s former spring event, Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. (Read Schultz’s latest TheaterJones column about Detour here.)
All’s Well will be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 4, in a reading directed by Dawn Monique Williams. Grise’s version features a cast that is all women of color. At WaterTower, the ensemble is Vanessa DeSilvio, Dominique Brinkley, Kia Nicole Boyer, Denise Lee, Gloria Benavides, Kendra Ware, JuNene K, Christie Vela and Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso.
“When I chose All’s Well, I had not read it; I didn’t have any experience with the play,” says Grise. “What is true for me, and with all of the writers in this project, is what it forces you to examine is your own relationship to Shakespeare. The first full Shakespeare production I saw was an all-female production of Othello.”
“I heard it, and I understood it in a different way,” she says of that Othello. “It became a story of intimacy in a way that wasn’t true when I first read it."
All’s Well That Ends Well stars Helena, who is one of only seven women characters that have more than 400 lines in his original play (the others are Rosalind, Cleopatra, Juliet, Cymbeline’s Imogen, Merchant of Venice’s Portia, and Measure for Measure’s Isabella; by comparison, 57 male characters have 400 or more lines). Helena is juxtaposed with one of the Bard’s biggest lowdown dirty dogs of a man, Bertram, who is forced to marry Helena by the King. He agrees to marry her on certain conditions, but then takes off for war in Italy, where he seduces other women. Helena has the last laugh, though, and, well, the title tells you the outcome.
The reading that North Texas audiences will see is the latest version of the script, but Grise suspects that it will go through at least one more revision.
“[The women in the casts talked] about these questions of honor and masculinity, and Helena’s power and what she brings, and what does ‘curing the king’ really mean?” Grise says. “There is also this question of how do women claim power, what is their potential to feel … what does it mean to navigate class, both from the inside and outside?”
When she began with All’s Well, she assembled actors to read the original Shakespeare text. Then, she created something that was a hybrid of Shakespeare’s words and her own.
"The first draft was very much a literal translation, the second draft was more about the characters and playfulness and development," she says. "It’s a super raunchy play. It’s still a draft.”
Grise, who taught high school in San Antonio and Austin, came to theater through her first love, poetry. She still writes poetry and has created performance installations, street theatre, site-specific work and dance theatre. Her play blu was performed by Cara Mía Theatre in 2015; and 10 years before that, a previous incarnation of Cara Mía performed The Panza Monologues, in which she was a collaborator, in Dallas and Fort Worth. She has studied at and works with CalArts, and works on literacy projects with a women’s prison in Goodyear, Arizona—in Joe Arpaio’s district. Grise has read Jung’s Romeo and Juliet with them.
She is also working on an adaptation of Helena Maria Viramontes’ novel Their Dogs Came with Them, and a project with CalArts about Chinese and Mexican populations at the California-Mexico border.
Speaking about the controversy that Play On! has generated — do we need to translate Shakespeare for modern audiences?, some have asked — Grise sees the project as important, with the potential to draw audiences that have been turned off by Shakespeare in performance.
“I think the question of who’s translating these plays brings up the question of what is our relationship to Shakespeare, and who has the right to his work,” she says. “What happens when Shakespeare is translated by a Chicana from San Antonio who didn’t see her first Shakespeare until she was 30?”
Audiences at WaterTower’s first Detour festival are about to see — and hear.
The other new works being read in Detour are Wally World by Isaac Gomez (of Chicago), Origin Story by New York-based Nathan Alan Davis, and Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames by Dallas playwright Janielle Kastner. At 4 p.m. on Thursday, March 1, there will be a playwrights panel with all four, moderated by Mark Lowry of TheaterJones.com (that’s me), and broadcast on Facebook Live via WaterTower’s Facebook page. You can also sit in live, for free.
Additionally, Detour has workshops of devised work by Dallas outfits Cry Havoc Theater Company, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, and Prism Movement Theater; plus music from Veteran Children and a late-night of Brigham Mosley’s Movies That Should be Musicals: My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Below is the complete schedule, and you can read more about the plays and devised works in our announcement of the festival, here.
Thursday, March 1
4pm - Facebook Live playwrights panel moderated by Mark Lowry of TheaterJones.com
7:30pm – Wally World by Isaac Gomez (Main Stage)
Friday, March 2
8pm – Prism Movement Theatre presents As Dreams Are Made On (Studio)
10pm – Veteran Children (Studio)
Saturday, March 3
2pm – Cry Havoc Theater Company presents Sex Ed (Main Stage)
5pm – Origin Story by Nathan Alan Davis (Studio)
8pm – Dark Circles Contemporary Dance presents 3 New Creations (Main Stage)
10pm – Movies That Should Be Musicals: My Best Friend’s Wedding (Studio)
Sunday, March 4
2pm – All’s Well That Ends Well, a New American Translation by Virginia Grise (Studio)
5pm – Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames by Janielle Kastner (Main Stage)
Detour festival passes are $40-$45; $10-$15 for individual devised works and late-night events; and free for individual staged readings.