I should probably play the real lottery.
Yesterday, I submitted my name to the virtual lottery to get tickets for the Public Forum at the Delacorte Theater titled “What are we worth? Shakespeare, money and morals.” It was a one-night event where a handful of ridiculously talented and well known actors read monologues or performed a scene from several Shakespeare plays and then Harvard professor Michael Sandel led a public forum about money’s influence in society (more specifically creating market-based entities where there should/should not be).
Though I am not as well versed in my Shakespeare as I could be, I was hoping to see the event because when else would I get a chance to see Alan Alda or Matt Damon reading Shakespeare?
Well, needless to say, I won the lottery and my theater buddy friend and I ended up with fourth row tickets to this one night only event.
To put it simply, but not really so – the whole experience was interesting.
I couldn’t get over how great our seats were, but somehow I let myself just be in the moment.
The event was split into two halves, the first being the actors performing Shakespeare. After a brief introduction to the play and scene the actor(s) would be performing, said actor would come out on stage and do a dramatic (or comedic) reading of some passage that dealt with money (and usually some sort of corruption).
To be honest, of all the work that was performed, I had only ever seen/read Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice, but there were other plays that I actually never heard of (whoops). All the same, it didn’t really matter what the source was – it was the messages about money and the realities about how Shakespeare’s words still ring true today. I’m not going to say that he was ahead of his time… but I will say that it’s amazing how we are continuing to deal with the same financial woes he wrote of back in the day.
I actually found it really ironic to watch monetarily sound actors perform pieces about money troubles. It got even more interesting during the public forum part, but I’ll get to that later.
The first actor out on stage was Raul Esparza. I kept my flailing internal as I watched him perform some monologue from some play I hadn’t heard of. His character talked about how people having a lot of money was a sin, but eventually came around to the thought that he wouldn’t mid if he had a lot of money. While the words were powerful (oh, Shakespeare), I selfishly was just taking in Esparza and thinking about how grateful I was to be seeing him in person again (I saw him in Company years ago) and pinching myself that I’ll see him onstage next month in The Cradle Will Rock. He’s captivating and you kind of just have to watch him.
Next out on stage was Christine Baranski. Again, I knew not what play she was reading from, but her passage was about how money corrupts – how it is responsible for making and breaking religions and is the source of a lot of trouble, and yet it is just some small thing. (I mean, really – have you thought about that… money is a coin, or a piece of paper, or a plastic card. It’s an object on which we’ve placed so much importance that people and countries have been destroyed over or because of it.) It was a real thrill to see Baranski perform. Sure, it was just a monologue, but the woman has such a presence.
Alan Alda was next. He had, by far, the shortest monologue of the night. I honestly can’t tell you what he talked about because in that moment I was just a fan, gobsmacked by the fact that Hawkeye was 30 feet away from me.
Gloria Ruben performed next. I believe she performed something from The Tempest. I can’t remember what she said, but I know I clapped just as hard for her as everyone else. She’s another actor whose work I have respected for years and I just couldn’t believe I was sitting so close to the stage.
And then there was Vanessa Redgrave. Flawless woman is flawless. Ms. Redgrave performed both parts in the Romeo and Juliet scene where Romeo goes to the Apothecary to buy the vile of poison. The key lines that would be brought up later during the Forum were “It is my poverty and not my will that consents” and “I pay thy poverty and not thy will.” I was blown away by Ms. Redgrave’s performance for several reasons. Firstly, she was mostly off book. Though she held her script in her hands, she did not consult it much. Secondly, her script was in her hands and not a binder (like everyone else). Thirdly, she actually performed the scene. She walked out onto the stage as Romeo, looking for the Apothecary. She even shouted at one point, trying to get his attention. Watching her perform, you could kind of pretend she was both parts because she’s just that great. I was thrilled to be seeing her perform again, having seen her in The Revisionist Off-Broadway a few months ago. She’s one of those people who you can’t help but to admire and think is the bee’s knees.
And then, there were five.
The last performance of the night was a lengthy scene from The Merchant of Venice that featured the final five performers – Marsha Stephanie Blake, Lily Rabe, Jesse L. Martin, Matt Damon and Hamish Linklater. It was the scene where three suitors must choose between three caskets in order to marry Portia. One of the caskets is gold, one is silver and one is lead. Each casket has an inscription on it, and the correct casket has Portia’s likeness inside. The suitors who choose the wrong casket must give up their attempts to court Portia. One of the suitors is someone who Portia actually loves, so it’s a hot mess for a bit, as she’s worried someone else will choose the right casket. However, two of the suitors are assholes and are so selfish and greedy, that they (spoiler alert) pick the wrong caskets. So, it all works out in the end.
Jesse L. Martin played the Prince of Morocco, who chooses the gold casket that reads, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” His rational is that many man desire Portia, ergo that is the correct casket. Martin was fun to watch, as he played his role with such arrogance but was wearing jeans and a beanie and looked exactly how I always thought he himself would look in person.
Matt Damon played the Prince of Arragon. Before he got up to read his part, he popped in a piece of gum and threw his gum wrapped on the ground near his chair. His prince smacked his gum, had an annoying laugh and was smug as hell. And while it was funny to see Damon’s creative choices, part of me wondered if he relied so heavily on the humor because Damon himself stuck out like a sore thumb among the performers. I’m not saying his performance was bad (because it wasn’t by any means), I’m just saying that everyone else on that stage has EXTENSIVE stage work behind them and performing in front of a few thousand people like that might not be his forte as much as film work is. That being said, it was a real treat to see Damon perform. He’s definitely someone I’ve always wanted to see perform in person some how, but I never thought I would get that opportunity.
Anyway, The Prince of Arragon chooses the silver casket that reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” Thinking he deserves Portia, he opens the casket to find he has chosen poorly.
And then there was Hamish.
Hamish Linklater played the third suitor, Bassanio. Portia wants him to pick the right casket and even offers to coach him on how to choose. He, however, asks to be allowed to pick the casket on his own and by doing so, he goes for the lead casket. Once he opens it, he is rewarded with Portia’s picture, as well as her hand. This scene is one of those morality tales about how just because something is fancy and shiny, doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. Also, arrogant, selfish men do not always get what they want. I always have problems with these kinds of scenes because of how the men treat women like property to be won, but that’s a horse of a different color and I shan’t go on a tangent about gender inequality when the main focus of the night was money and morals.
It is an understatement when I write that I was smitten with Hamish Linklater (and his brief performance as Bassanio). He was the last actor to partake in the scene and it was fun to watch him watch the others. He legitimately cackled at some of Jesse L. Martin and Matt Damon’s shtick, but then wholly embodied Bassanio. As soon as he stood up to interact with Portia, my heart melted a lot. The way he was looking at her as she rambled was the kind of silent performance you see in the movies right as the music swells and true love conquers all. He looked at her like she was his everything and I wanted to switch places with her, if only for a few seconds. Linklater proceeded to dishevel himself while on stage. Hands ran through his hair, causing it to stick up even more that it already was, which looked appropriate as his shirt was wrinkled giving his overall appearance a rumpled look. I liked Bassanio in the movie, but I kinda liked him onstage too…
And with that, the acting portion of the evening was over.
Gears shifted slightly and Michael Sandel was introduced. Turns out he had Matt Damon as a student when Damon was at Harvard (which will come into play later) and he’s really good at public speaking. Sandel engaged the crowd in some spirited discussion and debate about the creation of a market economy in instances that might not need it. There were two prominent debates. One was whether there should be a sanctioned market for selling kidneys, the other was whether school kids should be given incentives (like money) to get good grades or read books.
Both discussions could be whittled down to the “Haves” and “Have Nots” debate. People were saying that if selling kidneys were legal, poor people would do it because they need money. (As in, it became less about consent and more about a financial need.) As for kids getting paid to get good grades and read, it was mentioned that kids who are more well off anyway are the ones who have better access to books (and the ability to read), or that paying a kid to read would take away their intrinsic want to read. Like, reading would be a chore to do to get money, and that later in life, if no one was going to be paying them, then why should they read?
There is likely no completely right or wrong answer to these debates, but I think the point was to get people talking. I love reading and have loved reading since I was a child. No one had to bribe me to read. Same goes with getting good grades. I never got paid for getting good grades – my “payment” was the promise that working hard in school would allow me to get into college and then have a good job. Now, SOME of that was true. (I did get into college with a bunch of scholarships and stuff and now have two degrees… but as for having a good job. Yeah, no. That was all lies.)
Later in the discussion, Sandel brought Damon up on stage and the two of them started talking baseball. They mused how back in the 70s, you could go see a game and bleacher seats would be a dollar and better seats were about $3.50. They said how everybody – regardless of social status – ate the same crappy stadium food, stood in line for the same bathroom and basically had the same ballpark experience. Then they commented how nowadays, it’s ridiculous how much money it costs to go see a baseball game and how bleacher seats cost a lot of money, but then there are skyboxes for those with money who have catered food and their own private bathrooms. The rich and the not so rich are no longer on an even keel at the ballpark, and it’s because of money. Enjoying America’s pastime will never be the same again because it costs an arm and a leg to attend a game, and because of monetary segregation groups of people are being left out.
Earlier I mentioned how it was really ironic watching these actors perform monologues and scenes about money and its effects on people and society. As someone who is basically living near the poverty line, it was a mind trip watching Matt Damon and Michael Sandel talk about monetary factors with regard to going to a baseball game. These guys have money. A lot of money. And they can likely go sit in a skybox whenever they want.
I always find it fascinating when people who have means talk about people who don’t, as it is frustrating and amusing at the same time (I equate it to watching old crusty male politicians talking about women’s rights issues…).
No questions really got answered at last night’s forum, but I think the whole point was to get people talking or at least thinking. For example – I have no money, but I often wonder if someday when I have money, if that would change me as a person. I sure hope not.