BOSTON—Five centuries after William Shakespeare wrote “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” the Boston Red Sox have been deposed as World Series champions, bouncing from last place to first and again to the cellar in a shift from tragedy to comedy that even the revered playwright would appreciate.
And so, as they head into yet another winter of their discontent, the Red Sox are turning Fenway Park over to the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company to bring a bit of the Bard of Avon to the former home of Josh and Daniel Bard.
The curse of “The Scottish Play” and “The Curse of the Bambino” will be as one on Friday night when the troupe performs a sort of Best of Bill, featuring 10 classic scenes in the ballpark that has always been more Big Papi than Joseph Papp, more Green Monster than “green-ey’d monster,” more Carl Yastrzemski than Henry VIII.
“Where else would you want to do Shakespeare than in Boston’s most hallowed and treasured ground,” artistic director Steven Maler said. “He wrote as easily comedy as he did tragedy; the Red Sox seem deeply versed in both.”
Since John Henry bought the franchise in 2002, the Red Sox have tried to expand Fenway’s portfolio, renovating it to increase capacity and using it to host movie nights and hockey games and Springsteen concerts. The “lyric little bandbox” lauded by John Updike will be the first in the major leagues to host a Shakespearean performance, Maler said.
“Theater doesn’t belong inside these curtain-draped, plush-seat experiences were you have to pay 100 bucks to walk through the door,” said Maler, whose company usually performs in the Boston Common. “Shakespeare was a very populist writer during the day. We’d like to bring that vitality and that roughness back to the work. So it’s a perfect venue for us.”
Shall I compare the Red Sox to a Shakespeare play?
What blood lingers longer: The stain on Lady Macbeth’s hands, or the one on Curt Schilling’s sock? Which was the true Comedy of Errors, the Shakespearean farce or the Buckner World Series? To pull Pedro, or not to pull Pedro?
Why was that even a question?
“Comedy, tragedy, history. It’s all-in-one. The most theatrical stories in the most fitting place,” said Kerry O’Malley, who will portray Olivia from “Twelfth Night” on the field where she has sung the national anthem and danced for a Red Sox title. “I don’t want to go overboard but it’s like sacred space for me. It’s my favourite place on earth. I love it so much.”
Maler said the idea for Shakespeare at Fenway was proposed by then-Mayor Tom Menino a few years ago and warmly received by Red Sox President Larry Lucchino, who said in a news release to announce the event: “All the ballpark’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
“Glee” and “Yes, Dear” actor Mike O’Malley—a Red Sox season ticket-holder—is the headliner, along with his sister Kerry and Neal McDonough (“Suits,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Band of Brothers”). Maler said the scenes were chosen so that the audience will be familiar with them; there will also be songs, such as a number from the Shakespeare-inspired musical “Kiss Me, Kate.”
About 6,000 seats will be available for Friday’s show, with some tickets free to the public and nonprofits and others ranging from $35 to $125. Fair is foul and foul is fair for this production, with the stage set up over the home dugout and facing into the first-base boxes.
And when Hamlet pours poison in his uncle’s ear, he won’t be far from where Pedro Martinez grabbed Don Zimmer by the ears and threw him to the ground.
“There is so much cross-over between a major league sporting event and going to the theatre (in Shakespeare’s day): music, people serving food, unsavoury characters hanging around,” said Boston College professor Caroline Bicks, who teaches Shakespeare and blogs about him at www.everydayshakespeare.com.
“They didn’t have big-time sporting events in Shakespeare’s time,” Bicks said. “In terms of democratic entertainment experiences, it was probably the most democratic.”
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, like Fenway, was open-air, sorting its different classes of customer into Elizabethan luxury suites called Lords Rooms or standing room down in front for a penny. Bicks said it was built outside the city of London to escape the restrictions that were meant to curb the excesses of the day, like prostitution, drinking and the plague. (In fairness to the Red Sox, they have been accused only of two.)
Bicks said that Shakespeare’s histories, with their rousing soliloquies on national honour, bring to mind the hometown pride of Red Sox Nation. Shakespeare had his Henry VI trilogy; the Red Sox had their own No. 6, Johnny Pesky, who served the team as player, manager and coach in a six-decade career before finally receiving a championship ring.
“Hamlet gets some revenge within three hours,” Maler said. “That Babe Ruth thing goes on and on.”
The Red Sox sold Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1918—to fund a Broadway play, no less—and didn’t win another championship until 2004. That year, they rallied from a three-game deficit to beat their arch rivals (think: Capulets and Montagues) in a comeback so epically cathartic that it surpassed fiction; one local athlete echoed a common theme when he told the Globe—the Boston newspaper, not the theatre in London—“You couldn’t write a better script.”
O’Malley guessed that even Shakespeare would agree.
“He’d probably bow down to that story and say, ‘No, I couldn’t have done that any better,’” she said. “What better playwright to have for this cursed franchise that had such spectacular redemption.”
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is also said to be cursed, a pre-urban legend that discourages actors from speaking the name of the play, except in rehearsal. But the performers do tell each other to “break a leg” before a show—something that should never, ever be said to a ballplayer taking the field.
“No broken legs for them. Please, please, please,” O’Malley beseeched. “This season’s been bad enough.”