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Marriage Counseling from Shakespeare's Sonnets Hot

Roseanne Wells
Written by Roseanne Wells     April 07, 2010    
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Marriage Counseling from Shakespeare's Sonnets

Photos: Pierre Reis

I’ve been waiting a long time for a show like this: a passionate and considerate script about the sonnets. Theater for a New Audience presents C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s production of Love Is My Sin, directed by Peter Brook (the title derived from Sonnet 142, “Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate…”). Brook arranges a narrative from 31 sonnets to show the ebbs and curves of a romance, encompassing the confrontation with mortality, and the humanity in a relationship between two people.

The stage is set with a small square bar table and stool on each side, with chairs positioned around this central pairing. A keyboard dressed as a harpsichord stands solitary in the corner, present but not obtrusive. The lights dim and the enchanting melancholy of the accordion floats in from off stage. Twinkling like sad, flickering stars, the notes lilt and wind through the empty set. Their ever-watchful keeper, Frank Krawczyk, ushers them from off-stage left as he crosses to sit at his post. Under his adroit fingers and attentive ear, this production’s music supports and highlights the poetry, absorbing the spaces between sonnets. Of note, Krawczyk’s surprise use of the accordion paired with Sonnet 60 showcases his innovative orchestration of sound and silence.

Natasha Parry (Brook’s wife) and Michael Pennington bring their own music to the words, the two actors complementing each other in voice and stage presence. I’m not sure whether Parry was allotted more naturally dramatic poems, but she brings strong theatrical poise to each of her pieces. Pennington, with a more casual tone and nature than his partner, speaks with bright, clear vowels that brighten the stage. The nuances in his interpretation serve to gel the whole piece together. Pennington gets laughs from his Sonnet 138, “When my love swears that she is made of truth,/ I do believe her though I know she lies,” his pauses timed for the greatest comedic effect. Although his interpretation of 29 (my favorite sonnet) differs from my own pacing, I can see that there is reason and passion behind each of their choices in tone, inflection, and rhythm.

This, however, is not matched by the disjointed, often corny and superimposed staging. Mr. Brook is a master craftsman, but when Parry mimes writing with no pen, and when Pennington returns her note with one of the same, it takes away from the beauty and sincerity of the words. Fortunately, this kind of play-acting is kept to a minimum, and the actors easily transition out of these moments. Parry shines after their jealous, sparring sonnets wear these lovers out, and speaks the line from Sonnet 90, “Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now” with direct, heartfelt intent and language that dips into the marrow. Sonnet 90 acts as a fulcrum in the piece—a place where rash actions and mistakes are neither destroyed nor forgiven, but can be put gently on the bottom shelf—allowing the lovers the opportunity to move on and transcend their petty emotions for the sake of love.

In his talkback, Brook relates his first trip to Verona, where probably half of the city’s economy is centered on Romeo and Juliet in some form or another. At the building designated as “Juliet’s house,” Brook was the only person who showed up for the tour and received a personal showing from the sweet, wizened tour guide. As the man led Brook to the party ballroom, the balcony, even the cellar where Juliet lies in deathly sleep, he was overwhelmed and blurted out, “But you know that Juliet never existed!” Not missing a beat, the guide replied, “But you know that Shakespeare never existed.”

Who is to say that Juliet doesn’t exist through the words of the master poet and playwright? Brook stated that Shakespeare “entered all shades and aspects of the human experience,” but he believes that through the sonnets we can “hear Shakespeare’s experience of Elizabethan London.” For Brook, the actor serves as a human conduit, allowing the depth of the writer’s material to awaken the unconscious material in the actor. How raw, how refreshing, how immediate an experience! Poetry is not merely words arranged on a page; the sonnets are the struggle to fit the breadth of the universe and human experience into 14 lines—140 heartbeats.

Love Is My Sin opens in previews on March 25 and runs until April 17, 2010 at The Duke of 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Information can be found at

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