Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Scottish play in Tlingit

Some Shakespeare plays I've seen three or four times too many and don't care to see again -- The Merchant of Venice comes to mind -- but I'm always up for a new production of the one that superstitious theater folk call "the Scottish play," and I'm especially sorry to have missed the recent Tlingit-language production at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.Seeing the poster reminded me of William Sanders' wonderful story "The Undiscovered," an alternate history in which Shakespeare winds up living among the Cherokees and writing Hamlet just for them.

The museum's production was staged by the Perseverance Theatre of Juneau, Alaska. On a video in the lobby of the museum, director Anita Maynard-Losh explained that whenever the characters are speaking words in harmony with nature and the universe, they speak Tlingit (in a new translation by Johnny Marks), but whenever the characters violate that harmony -- as the chief and his wife do through much of the play, of course -- they speak Shakespeare's English.

This struck me as a beautifully cunning move; the director makes her political point, one guaranteed to make the English-firsters apoplectic with indignation, while rationalizing the inclusion of all that familiar dark English poetry that audiences pay to hear. Who remembers any of Macduff's lines, after all?

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