Shakespeare on a Harley
Among the most vivid memories Mark Clements has of his youth are arguments with his parents over owning a motorcycle. The Milwaukee Rep's artistic director grew up in a theater family in England, and mom and dad were not bike enthusiasts.
Clements prevailed when he was 15, and he subsequently raced motocross for five years. The off-road sport started in the United Kingdom.
When he came to Milwaukee to interview for the Rep job, the cycle lover asked to tour the Harley-Davidson Museum. "They (Rep officials) asked what I wanted to see, and I thought, I'm sure they want me to say something arty. But then I thought, they might as well find out who I am," he recalled.
Months later, the Rep's reception that introduced Clements to Milwaukee after his appointment was held at the museum, where Harley presented him with an official leather jacket.
With all of that background, it should come as no surprise that the artistic director chose to place an early 17th century theater classic in the setting of a contemporary motorcycle gang. Clements' production of Shakespeare's "Othello" opens Friday night in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater at the Baker Theater Complex.
Three Harleys, 22 actors, buckets of blood and real fire are onstage. Two of the motorcycles are ridden. The actors are covered in biker garb and tattoos.
This has all the makings of a spectacle, but Clements is quick to point out his choice is grounded in sound and interesting connections between the play and modern motorcycle gangs.
"The gangs have a very medieval type of structure," he said during a recent interview. "It is very hierarchical. They have their own judicial system, their own creed, their own rules.
"Members are prepared to die for that code.The strongest guy standing is the leader. There is a sense of ownership of women, and the women subscribe to that."
Clements said biker gang wars and the armed conflicts that frame "Othello" are similar. "Othello was the general of a private militia fighting for the Venetians.
"Wars are about territory and the acquisition of wealth. It's about turf."
Shakespeare's text has been trimmed for this production, as it often is to accommodate 21st century attention spans, but the language has not been bowdlerized. "I substituted 10 or 12 words with other Shakespearean words for the sake of clarity," Clements said.
"I have not changed the language. I always want to honor the author, honor the intention of the author.
"It's a different reading of the play. It's like a musical reading, making the horns more prominent in a song."
Clements continued, "Shakespeare wrote plays for the masses. He was an entertainer.
"He wrote for a populist audience. He had to make sure the stories were being told in a way that resonated for his audience."
Placed in an unspecific American location, the characters in the Rep production carry guns and use cell phones. Harley provided the onstage motorcycles.
"There are moments when this is quite epic, but we shut the space down and make it intimate when that is appropriate," Clements said.
Playing bikers is a new experience for most of the Rep's cast, which includes such company veterans as Lee Ernst, James Pickering, Gerard Neugent and Deborah Staples. "They were starting from scratch, as they often do," Clements said of the actors.
Research material included YouTube clips and episodes of the cable TV series "Sons of Anarchy," a drama about a Northern California outlaw motorcycle club.
During the "Othello" run, a 2010 Harley-Davidson Cross Bones motorcycle will be on display in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater lobby, as will select pieces from the Harley Museum's "Worn to be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket" exhibit.
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