Many Santa Feans spent the month of February brushing up their Shakespeare, spurred on by the visit of a copy of the First Folio to the New Mexico Museum of Art. The First Folio, as culture-minded folks in these parts should be well aware by now, was the original compilation of Shakespeare’s complete plays (or at least nearly all of them) into a single volume. The edition was published in 1623, seven years after the author died, and 233 copies are known to exist today. To mark the 400th anniversary of his death, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which owns 82 of those surviving volumes, masterminded a tour to place one on display in every state of the nation in the course of the year, with New Mexico coming up early in the rotation.
Inspiring Americans to revisit the writings of the most revered wordsmith of the English language is a fine and worthy enterprise, and we should be grateful that Santa Fe snagged the honor within our state. At the center of the project was the New Mexico Museum of Art, where the Folio was on display from Feb. 5 through Feb. 28 before moving on to its next stop, but it probably could not have gotten the green light on its own. In selecting the tour venues, the Folger considered both curatorial nuts and bolts — like environmental and safety concerns — and the city-wide context that would surround the show. Santa Fe rose to the occasion, promising and delivering an impressive battery of Bard-related exhibitions, performances, readings, lectures, and other public activities.
Things worked out pretty well on the whole, although it was hard not to overlook bits and pieces that fell short of ideal. The most obvious was the exhibition Stage, Setting, Mood: Theatricality in the Visual Arts, which included as its centerpiece the Folger’s touring show titled First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare. Together these occupied one room in the Museum of Art; from a visitor’s perspective, they seemed a single show. The book was housed in its own plexiglass case in the middle of the space and was surrounded by a handful of large panels, provided by the Folger, which provided background on the First Folio and stressed the relevance of Shakespeare to current popular culture. On the walls of the room were hung the Museum of Art’s contribution: 40 paintings, prints, and photographs that had some connection to the concept of “theatricality.”
The joint exhibition could have been more impactful. Arriving was a letdown. One reached it via a different exhibition that opened the same day — a colorful, vibrant, and alluring show about the history of the guitar. As things were arranged, the Folio/Theatricality show seemed terribly sedate in comparison. Its single ancient volume, in an unglamorous box, exuded little magnetism. One imagined a set-up in which the museum had constructed an alley leading visitors directly to the main show, without the distraction of the guitars — a discrete walkway in which panels could have built anticipation, perhaps assisted by an audio component broadcasting great actors of past and present declaiming famous morsels from Shakespeare’s plays, the whole depositing attendees at an impressive altar on which was displayed the holy object of veneration. As it was, the experience suffered from a touch of “meh.”
The surrounding Theatricality show seems a stretch. The opening wall text proclaims that “New Mexico has been described as ‘dramatic, almost theatrical’ ” — one wonders by whom — and then observes, flatly, that “flat planes of adobe structures can impart a diorama or stage-like quality to the arrangement of flat two-dimensional surfaces in three-dimensional space.” Fair enough, and a few nearby oils bear this out, such as Frank G. Applegate’s circa 1925 Pueblo Indian Dance, in which performers in a central area are viewed by onlookers at the fringes, and James Stovall Morris’ dramatically illuminated WPA-era Velorio, which depicts a wake as a sort of stage set. Elsewhere one encounters pictures of actors and stage presentations, but as the show progresses, the connection to the presumed topic grows increasingly vague. The most imposing painting is Julius Rolshoven’s large oil The Indian Council (circa 1916), an elegant arrangement of five robed figures, a drum, and some pots. But figures and objects in paintings are almost always “arranged” by the artist in some specific balance, and I never grasped why this piece was more relevant to the argument than another might have been. The looseness continued. Of an Edward S. Curtis photograph of an Indian (Spidis, 1910), we read, “Curtis’ romantic photographs of indigenous people were carefully staged.” Well, yes. Ditto Arnold Newman’s photograph Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch. Didn’t Georgia always pose when a camera was in the vicinity?
Completely on topic, in contrast, were four large color etchings published in London in the years around 1800 by John Boydell, gorgeous, bright-hued images of moments from Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear in which the characters strike supremely thespian poses. But these somehow were made to serve as the point of departure for items that ostensibly demonstrated the “pathetic fallacy,” a term coined in the 19th century and used in aesthetics to describe how human characteristics are attributed to phenomena of nature: when King Lear wanders in a storm on the heath, for example, the storm’s chaos, which has no subjective value in nature, is viewed as a reflection of Lear’s state of mind. This leads to a series of pictures whose connection to the theme ranges from slight to nil: Charles Russell’s 1898 ink-on-paper drawing Last of the Herd, in which human onlookers and a flock of sheep surround a dead steer and a bovine skull, or Billy Schenck’s post-Precisionist oil Rough Riders (2015), of a cowboy roping cattle — at which point we have truly lost the thread. Stage, Setting, Mood: Theatricality in the Visual Arts continues on its own following the departure of the First Folio, now with six vitrines and a study desk added to fill the center space.
A gentler, quieter, and ultimately more successful show is across the street at the New Mexico History Museum. The Book’s the Thing: Shakespeare From Stage to Page, installed in a long, narrow room of the Palace of the Governors (which dates from Shakespeare’s lifetime), grows out of the idea of the First Folio as a physical book, a work of printing rather than of literature or drama. Again, the topic is allowed a somewhat loose leash, but it strolls enjoyably through various print-centered “takes” on the Bard, including displays of Shakespeare editions that are remarkable for their illustration, typesetting, page design, and binding. Here we encounter John Boydell again, through an 1874 edition of his Gallery of Illustrations for Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works, open to a quite hilarious image titled The Infant Shakespeare, in which the Baby Bard is placed in a crèche-like setting, attended by Nature and the Passions. (One wonders if another page might show him being visited by the three kings — say, Henry V, Richard III, and Lear.) Other engravings of Shakespearean scenes come from the 19th-century printmaker C.W. Cope, illustrating Julius Caesar, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show also includes brand-new creations by way of 16 works of “book art” crafted by members of the Santa Fe Book Arts Group — some taking the form of actual books, others leaning in the direction of sculptures formed from bookish material, all of them appealing and entertaining. Another series of new pieces are Shakespeare quotations beautifully expressed in calligraphy (by Patricia Musick) on marbled papers (by Palace Press director Tom Leech). Being a journalist, my favorite is an observation Rosencrantz utters in Hamlet: “Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills.”
Printing also has an active presence in this show. At the end of the gallery is a replica of a Gutenberg-style hand-printing press, boasting the same technology used to print the First Folio, that is manned for a couple of hours every day by folks from the Palace Press. Visitors, including many school groups, have been captivated to watch this creaking, groaning machine turn out a small page of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, each sheet the result of deliberate manual labor. This exhibition charms attendees while positioning the First Folio as an act rather than a thing, a verb rather than a noun.
A good many lectures provided enrichment for Shakespeare enthusiasts. Of the several I attended, a greatly enjoyable one was delivered by Stephen Grant (Feb. 19 at St. Francis Auditorium), detailing the story of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clay Folger, their passion for Shakespeareana, and their creation of the Folger Shakespeare Library; it was followed by an entertaining conversation with Santa Fe resident John Andrews, who for years worked on the staff of that institution. The next day the proceedings assumed a more academic posture for a symposium titled “Shakespeare in New Mexico and the West,” moderated by Bruce Smith. The opening presentation, by University of Southern California professor Heather James, aimed to explicate William Jacob Hays’ 1862 painting A Herd of Buffaloes on the Bed of the River Missouri, included in the Museum of Art’s show, as a gloss on Hamlet. In the painting, one bison turns away from the infinite herd to countenance a skull lying on the (fore)ground. I gather her lecture was drawn from a larger research project. Although the painting certainly falls into the tradition of the memento mori, she seemed to have left out the part that clarified why one should see this particular bison as Hamlet. The next lecture, by UNM professor Marissa Greenberg, looked at an obscure play titled The Merchant of Santa Fe, by Lynn Butler Knight and Ramón A. Flores, that was produced in Albuquerque in 1993; and this served as a launching pad for a sort of Shakespeare travelogue of our state. The play, which was never published and is not at this point available to general readers, sounds intriguing, transposing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to a crypto-Jewish community in New Mexico. Perhaps it can be brought to life in connection with the upcoming exhibition Fractured Faiths: Spanish Judaism, the Inquisition, and New World Identities, set to open this May at the New Mexico History Museum. The afternoon ended with a roundtable in which was lightly discussed the pros and cons of reading Shakespeare from a book versus experiencing his plays in staged productions. It was found that pleasures are afforded by both.
Among the performances born of the Shakespeare flurry, there was much to enjoy in Ever the Twain: Shakespeare in Mark Twain’s America, a genial evening (Jan. 31 at the Lensic) in which Jonathan Richards (a Pasatiempo contributor) portrayed the Bard and Robert Martin (the Lensic’s executive/artistic director) took the part of Twain, the two of them finding common ground through witty exchanges, with local celebrity Valerie Plame reading a narration. One would like to imagine that this show could go on to a longer life. Lear’s Shadow (Feb. 27 at the Lensic) was a one-man show featuring Geoff Hoyle, a long-appreciated force in the “new vaudeville” scene of California’s Bay Area. He brought well-honed skills as a clown, mime, and actor to an imaginative perspective on Shakespeare: the tragedy of King Lear as seen from the viewpoint of Lear’s sidekick the Fool. The least compelling parts of the show were long expanses in which he essentially rendered speeches from Shakespeare’s play, imitating several characters. This is a kind of theater that may appeal to Mediaeval Fayre types more than to the rest of us, but one respected his achievement for what it was.
Not so easy to applaud was an event (Feb. 17 at the Adobe Rose Theatre) titled Dames of Thrones: Women in Shakespeare’s Histories, performed by the Ducdame Ensemble (Ariana Karp, director) and presented by Santa Fe’s International Shakespeare Center. It was a sequence of 11 scenes, ostensibly selected to highlight strong women in Shakespeare’s plays, although the male characters actually seemed more prominent and compelling in some of the excerpts. The company’s mostly American members — 13 of them appeared here — are all said to hold master’s degrees from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, but most of their talents seemed unformed and what they achieved was merely collegiate. It would not merit comment except that one now sees the Ducdame Ensemble being described as the International Shakespeare Center’s repertory company — which I suppose means that they will be back. ◀
“Stage, Setting, Mood: Theatricality in the Visual Arts” continues through May 1 at the New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W. Palace Ave.), though now bereft of the First Folio.
“The Book’s the Thing: Shakespeare From Stage to Page” runs through March 26 at the Palace of the Governors/New Mexico History Museum (113 Lincoln Ave.).