June 9, 2010

Theater: Alternative education

Get pumped and primed for this year’s Kentucky Shakespeare Festival by reading

My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare
By Jess Winfield. Twelve Publishing; 320 pgs., $14.99.

It never hurts to brush up on a Shakespeare play before making the annual pilgrimage to an outdoor Shakespeare play or two in Louisville’s Central Park. And it might even be necessary before this year’s performance of the lesser-known history “Richard III.”

You might know why Ophelia, Juliet and even Lady Macbeth are so tormented, but how many people know why Richard is conniving with all his wiles to dispose of his two brothers, not to mention wooing a woman at her own husband’s funeral?

While you’re enjoying some white wine and cheese, it helps to know a bit about the play in advance. It’s especially useful at Central Park, where key dialogue is occasionally overrun by the sounds of overhead jets and fire-truck sirens.

So here’s how it’s done, normally: Call up Sparknotes, get a run-down, pack the blanket or chairs, swing by Lotsa Pasta, and prepare for an evening of Shakespeare under the stars (see the sidebar for more info on this summer’s Kentucky Shakespeare Festival).

Or, here’s another way: Let’s call it “alternative education.”

Pick up Jess Winfield’s book “My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare.” I first heard of Winfield when a group of local actors performed his hilarious play “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.” Informed audiences at the Frazier International History Museum howled with laughter and mused over Winfield’s adroit meshing of a plethora of characters from Duncan to Prospero to Cleopatra.

Now, after a decade of working in animation for Disney, Winfield has returned. His book is irreverent and current, yet simultaneously thoughtful and even scholarly. Whoa, I just used the word scholarly. Forget I said that. Let’s skip to the sex and drugs.

But first, a warning: Regarding the sex, this is not a book I would recommend to anyone not old enough to join a platoon in Afghanistan, or to readers who tend to fixate on graphic depictions of sex acts to the point of losing track of the plot. Winfield is explicit in describing lurid details I never expected to see in a book at Borders.

You’re wondering: So how does Will Shakespeare end up trying to avoid bellowing in ecstasy in the back of a library bus leaving the UC Berkeley campus?

Here’s the twist. “My Name is Will” alternates chapters between two Will Shakespeares — four centuries apart yet mysteriously and spiritually intertwined. The first is 18-year-old William Shakespeare, a high school Latin teacher living in Stratford, England, in the late 16th century.

The other is Willie Greenberg Shakespeare, a struggling grad student at UC Santa Cruz who is making a lame effort to prove Shakespeare was a Catholic, and that his personal experiences with religious oppression, especially of Catholics, were pivotal in forming the writer’s world view and ultimately influencing his writing. In the meantime, Willie’s real passion is getting high on mushrooms, bedding women and sleeping past noon.

Meanwhile, 400 years earlier, William Shakespeare is growing more enraged by the persecution of Catholics. This is where the torture comes in, and, honestly, I wished I had been daydreaming when I read the account of the martyrdom of a priest. For those who saw the “Braveheart” scene that included a theatrically veiled drawing and quartering, that was just a warm-up.

Winfield’s infusion of sex pops up unexpectedly, like jalapeños hidden in a burrito. Willie’s ambivalence toward his stepmother, for example, symbolically mirrors Hamlet’s angst toward his stepmother, Gertrude. But Gertrude didn’t teach Hamlet a very adult lesson on a Persian rug.

I think Winfield used this comedy to begin a conversation about his own theories of why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote. Winfield may try to disguise his historical and literary acumen in flippant scenes of giant mushrooms popping out of piles of cow poop, or in Renaissance Faire tent orgies, but there is no doubt that he is a real Shakespeare scholar with overflowing insights. Moreover, Winfield’s research into life in England in the late 16th century infuses seemingly contrived scenes with historic gravitas.

For fans of “Hamlet” especially, this book is a buffet of pleasure, delivering a steady stream of actual quotes and veiled plot references that are ubiquitous. It also is a serious look at how the events, including his forced marriage to the older Anne Hathaway, pregnant with his child, as well as a rocky father-son relationship, may have molded young Will Shakespeare, the son of a small-town glovemaker, into one of the greatest literary minds of all time.

In that regard, “My Name is Will” is like a masterly crafted, cogently argued and cleverly supported thesis — but don’t let that stop you. Winfield is like that great teacher who makes you laugh so hard and listen so intently that you don’t even notice you’re learning things you never knew you didn’t know.