Reflections on completing the canon

There was Dogberry, Shakespeare’s constable buffoon, tooling around the stage on one of those Segway things. Don John, the villain, was a rumpled woman in a wheelchair.

Actors carrying signs (shades of Brecht!), Karl Marx holding forth on money, puppets representing women.

The images are from Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 production of “Much Ado About Nothing” and last summer’s “Timon of Athens.”

One of the main takeaways from seeing all Shakespeare’s plays is simply the mind-boggling variety of ways in which theaters and directors try to make them fresh.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I thought “Much Ado” was muddied, while “Timon” was sharp.

I didn’t set out to complete the canon, as seeing all 37 plays is called (count 'em, your results may vary). But as Woody Allen said, 80 percent of life is showing up. And as I showed up with a critic’s pen for the best part of two decades, it just happened.

It wasn’t until OSF did “Cymbeline” in 2013 that I realized that I “needed” only a few plays to fill my OSF dance card. Which is why that year found me mulling a trip to the Bay Area to catch Berkeley Rep’s production of the seldom-staged “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.”

The trip didn’t happen, but when OSF did a fine production of the play in 2015, I realized I’d ticked off everything but “Timon.” Then last August, there it was: imperfect, bitter, probably incomplete but surprisingly entertaining.

So, after some 1,223 characters in 37 plays uttering about 34,895 speeches in 835,997 or so words (depending on cuts), some random thoughts on the theater and matters Shakespearean:

  • Shakespeare comes to life on the stage, including riches that lie dead on the printed page.

  • There’s no wrong way to do Shakespeare. “Hamlet” in a Soviet gulag? “The Comedy of Errors” in a colony on Mars? If it illuminates the text in new ways, bring it on.

  • If it doesn’t, don’t.

  • You may be haunted by characters too big to stay in their plays. In my dreams, Romeo wanders into “Twelfth Night” and falls for Viola, Hamlet smothers Desdemona in a rage, and Lady Macbeth shows up on Cleopatra’s barge.

  • The most inexhaustible characters are Hamlet and Falstaff, but Shakespeare’s great women (Rosalind, Viola, Juliet, Beatrice, Cleopatra) are smarter and more interesting than their men.

  • With Broadway focused on star vehicles and spectacle, regional theaters have become more important in the creation of new work, and plays commissioned by OSF have been popping up around the country (and Broadway, too).

  • West Coast audiences are pushovers. If every show gets a standing ovation, ovations become meaningless.

  • To Shakespeare fans who yearn for “traditional” stage and costume design: There’s no such thing. Modern-dress productions have been evolving for a century, following those gauzy Victorian/Edwardian things. When the King’s Men did “Timon,” it didn’t look like ancient Greece.

  • Falstaff is immortal, but if I had to banish one Shakespeare play it would be “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

  • If you suspend the assumption that these plays were written by a grain merchant from Stratford (a proposition for which there’s surprisingly little evidence), new horizons may open.

  • You won’t like everything OSF does, but having the festival in Southern Oregon is an amazingly unlikely piece of luck.

  • The aging audience is a problem (the upside is, it buys those $100 tickets).

  • There are grounds for hope, as when high school students roar at the earthy humor of, say, “The Taming of the Shrew.”

  • Theater can be profound, but first it needs to put butts in seats, which means it must entertain. Shakespeare’s audience didn’t come to the Globe to sit reverently through museum pieces. They wanted to have fun.

— Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at


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