Clowning Around with Elizabethan “SNL”

In “The Clown,” Newberry Consort marries music and improv—with a hefty dose of The Bard.

By Rebecca Julie

Shakespeare is turning 400, and in celebration the Newberry Consort, a Chicago-based early music ensemble, is marrying the Bard and music. 

The first in their series of performances, entitled The Clown, will feature a number of historically accurate Elizabethan jigs that highlight the famous Shakespearean clown Will Kemp, for whom the Bard wrote some of his most famous jester and clown roles. Steven Player, a master Kemp impersonator, will be collaborating with the Consort for this performance, using his expertise as a singer, actor, dancer, and musician to bring this Shakespearean tour de force to life. 

Elizabethan jigs were short, comedic musical sketches performed during the intermission or at the end of serious theatrical performances in Shakespeare’s day. Saturday’s performance at the Logan Center will be a compilation of such sketches, which Newberry Consort co-artistic director Ellen Hargis likened to Adam Sandler’s “Opera Man” skits on Saturday Night Live

“I think the easiest way to imagine what it will be like is [to] imagine something like a really hilarious…skit that is all done to music,” she said. “These are ballads, everybody sings all the time…it’s completely full of jokes…and the plots are actually kind of complicated, because they are full of people trying to trick each other. They’re only about 15–20 minutes tops…so they are quite quick, but they have dancing, they have cross-dressing, they have sword fights, they have pick-pocketing and all kinds of trickery.” 

The Newberry Consort, an ensemble-in-residence at both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, is no stranger to providing audiences with unique early music experiences. For the last 30 years, the Consort has been delivering Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music to audiences worldwide in a way that is as educational as enjoyable. 

“We are in a field that can be highly intellectual and very interestingly so, very entertainingly so,” said Hargis. “Even if somebody has never heard of this stuff before, they’re going to come to the concert and have a great time.”

Historical context is key to all performances. Audience members are provided with information on the music’s contemporary culture and politics in an effort to make the listening experience as accessible as possible. 

For The Clown, the Newberry Consort is producing a fully staged production, complete with singers, actors, authentic costumes, and a historically accurate set, including a traditionally structured orchestra with two violins, a viola, a cello, a lute, multiple guitars, and a fiddle played by the U.S. National Scottish Fiddling Champion, Tim MacDonald. 

The performance, which is showing at other Chicago locations on Friday and Sunday as well, will be unique. “It seems as though this is one of the first historical performances of Elizabethan jig that has happened in modern times in North America,” added Hargis’s co-artistic director David Douglass. “It is only rarely done in England, where it was [once] so popular.” 

Additionally, no two performances will be the same, harking back to early music’s propensity for improvisation. “The way that it was performed was closer to the way that jazz is performed today,” Douglass said. Player, whom Hargis hails as “a master improviser,” will only add to the spontaneity of the performances. 

“He really owns all of his skills, his playing, his singing, his dancing, his acting,” Hargis said. “I’ve performed with [him] a lot with some groups in Europe…. He keeps everybody on their toes, and he keeps us laughing. And I think that the audience will just be delighted with the skill and the humor of his performance.” 

The Newberry Consort’s performance of The Clown will take place at the Logan Center Performance Hall on Saturday, October 22 at 8 p.m. Student tickets are $5 at the door, and general admission tickets are $35–45.