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New Shakespeare Derivative Works Coming to Washington, D.C.

The remainder of the 2012-2013 Shakespeare season in Washington, D.C. offers an eclectic mix of some of his most popular plays and several derivative works.

Through October 28, the Chesapeake Theater Company is staging Richard III, certainly one of the most-performed plays in the world, in nearby Ellicott City, Maryland. Set outdoors among the marvelous stone ruins of Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, the company’s “Moveable Shakespeare” production directed by Ian Gallanar has the audience following the players from scene to scene. According to one review, it’s worth seeing just to take in Vince Eisenson’s portrayal of the demented monarch.

From November 15 through December 30, the Shakespeare Theatre Company will stage the tried-and-true A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under the direction of Ethan McSweeny.

Mignon Nevada (1886-1971) as Ophelia in Ambroise Thomas’s opera, Hamlet, circa 1910. Washington National Opera performed the opera at the Kennedy Center in 2010.

In December, “Enter Ophelia, distracted,” created by Kimberly Gilbert with Shakespeare’s text, will be performed by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, directed by Marcus Kyd. In my opinion, Taffety Punk produces the most innovative Shakespeare in town. The upcoming show is described as immersing “Ophelia into a sonic landscape that frames and follows her descent into madness.” Gilbert recently played Ophelia in the company’s “bootleg” production of the Bad Quarto of Hamlet. If the new show is anything like the company’s last one, a musical concert version of The Rape of Lucrece in which Gilbert played the lead (and bass guitar, too), Enter Ophelia, distracted should be special indeed.

The new year marches in with Folger Theatre’s production of Henry V, directed by Robert Richmond (January 22-March 3). As part of the Folger’s lecture series, Robert Shapiro will speak on January 25 about the Earl of Essex’s late 16th century military campaign against rebels in Ireland and its link to the play.

From February 21-24, the Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre will stage “Brutus,” an abridged version of Julius Caesar directed by Allison Fuentes. According to the theater’s website, this version “refocuses the classic tale from Brutus’s viewpoint, revealing the path toward his ultimate ‘call to fate’ and contemplating how thin the line can be between hero and villain.” Sounds fascinating.

In a similar vein, from March 28-June 2, the Shakespeare Theatre Company follows with a production of Coriolanus as part of its “The Hero/Traitor Repertory.” David Muse will direct Shakespeare’s tale of the proud soldier-turned-traitor who ultimately redeems himself in tragedy. Coriolanus also has links to the Earl of Essex, as observed in a review of Ralph Fienne’s excellent film version of the play.

A poster for the Federal Theatre Project in Los Angeles, which Congress cancelled in 1939 due to the project’s left-wing leanings.

From April 18-26, the Hartke Theatre will stage Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood. Winner of the 2004 Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play.  This derivative work lands Oberon and Puck on a 1934 Hollywood movie set. Jay Brock directs what should be a nice complement to the Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rounding out the season, from April 30 to June 9, the Folger will stage Twelfth Night – which I thinks is his funniest – under the direction of Robert Richmond.

From May 9 to June 23, the Shakespeare Theater Company will stage The Winter’s Tale, one of the Bard’s “problem plays” according to some,under the direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman.

Washington, D.C.’s incredibly rich Shakespeare scene is one reason why living here is so much fun.

Shakespeare Matters: “The Rape of Lucrece”

Many people don’t know it, but William Shakespeare first achieved fame as a poet.

His long narrative poem Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, followed a year later by a second one, The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare dedicated both poems to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a young, popular nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Southampton is widely viewed as the Fair Youth adored in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

“What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours,” Shakespeare wrote to Southampton in the dedication of Lucrece.

Renowned American stage actress Katherine Cornell (1893-1974) starred in “Lucrece” on Broadway in 1932. Her performance put her on the cover of Time Magazine.

While Venus and Adonis tells an amusing story of seduction, Lucrece presents the grim tale of Lucrece’s rape by Sextus Tarquinius, the lust-driven son of the reigning Roman king, and her subsequent feelings of shame and self-blame that lead to suicide. Her death causes the ouster of the Tarquins from power in Rome, after which the “state government changed from kings to consuls.”

In a 1964 biography of Shakespeare, A.L. Rowse writes of Lucrece, “There is clearly a deepening experience behind this poem, a greater knowledge of the shadowy side of life, the exploration of sin and remorse, the full realization of consequences, as always with [Shakespeare].” David Bevington, in his 1997 introduction to the poem, says that “Shakespeare’s real interest is not in the characters themselves so much as in the social ramifications of their actions.”

Drawing parallels in the poem to the abduction of Helen and the Trojan War, Shakespeare’s Lucrece shows how outrageous behavior that’s unbecoming of nobility makes not only for personal tragedy, but also takes down the royal powers that be.

Charles Beauclerk, author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, extends this idea, arguing that Lucrece represents Queen Elizabeth I, the mythical Virgin Queen who, in truth, was anything but chaste.

“[T]he piercing of the virgin’s veil or exposure of the queen as a whore – symbolized by the rape of Lucrece – could lead to the end of Elizabeth’s reign, even to the end of monarchy itself,” writes Beauclerk.

It’s a startling interpretation, but then again Shakespeare most often wrote about nobility, particularly the English nobility in his numerous history plays. A poem dedicated to a nobleman that attempts to symbolize Queen Elizabeth through the veil of verse seems an undertaking befitting of Shakespeare, an artist who liked to take risks. One shouldn’t forget the trouble his Richard II  stirred when it was publicly performed — with the incendiary scene of the King’s deposition — on the eve of the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.

Taffety Punk Theater Company is performing Shakespeare’s Lucrece as a “concert poem” at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. (metro: Eastern Market) through October 6.

I caught the opening show last night and recommend seeing this creative melding of Shakespeare and rock music. You’ll need to act quickly, there’s just five more performances.

Backed by original music performed by Marcus Kyd on guitar (Kyd also directed), Kimberly Gilbert on bass, and Dan Crane on drums, Tonya Beckman is an engaging narrator of Lucrece. Joel David Santner is compelling as the rapist Tarquin, and the physical struggle between him and Lucrece, played by Gilbert, is skillfully handled by the actors as they stay in synch with the part-dialogue, part-narration story-telling.  Katie Murphy dances gracefully as “Lucrece’s shadow” under the choreography of Erin Mitchell.

Gilbert is outstanding as Lucrece. I found her singing quite moving (“In vain I rail at Opportunity/At Time, at Tarquin, and uncheerful Night”). Like the notes of her bass guitar, Gilbert’s words don’t miss a beat.

Taffety Punk is to be applauded for their bold yet faithful adaptation of Lucrece and infusing Shakespeare with new energy. I hope the company continues on their unique path.

William Shakespeare, rock thee on!

In Washington D.C., See London (Twice!)

The city of London, the subject of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibition in Washington, D.C., Open City: London, 1500-1700, is mentioned in the Shakespeare canon more than five dozen times — but always in history plays, most of which are set in the 14th and 15th centuries.  So it’s no surprise that the Folger’s fine exhibition doesn’t spend time trying to connect the revered William of Stratford-upon-Avon to the London described by Shakespeare.

Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher (1610)

While exploring such links between the Bard and the settings of his plays might be interesting (one wonders why he never mentions Stratford), Open City: London, 1500-1700 is not about how Shakespeare depicted London and environs such as Westminster, Smithfield, and Cheapside in works such as Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, and Richard III, but rather how political, religious and economic forces, as well as plagues and the 1666 Great Fire, changed the city over the span of two centuries.

If you’re in the D.C. area, I highly recommend seeing the exhibition, which runs through September 30.

Open City: London, 1500-1700 covers three main areas of London life: the church, the theater and the market. Highlights include panoramic period maps of London remarkable in their detail, and a 1616 diptych (hinged panels that the viewer can open) of oil paintings of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Also on display are rare documents and books, including a 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles, and a 1689 printing of John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” You’ll also see the coat of arms of all companies and guilds doing business in London, circa 1596.

James McNeil Whistler, Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow (1876)

If you’d like to view more London of the past, a nice compliment to the Folger exhibition is Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London, at the nearby Freer Gallery. The Freer exhibition, which also runs through September 30, features watercolors and small oil paintings by James McNeil Whistler of the Chelsea neighborhood where he lived during the 1880s.

And if that’s not enough London for you, you may just want to go there!

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare Matters: All’s Well That Ends Well

It’s not ranked among Shakespeare’s best plays, which doesn’t mean it’s any less of a gem. All’s Well That Ends Well is a shining example of the Bard’s ability to combine drama, romance and comedy with seamless shifts in tones that make for a highly enjoyable play.

In this portrait Shakespeare looks comfortable in his nobleman’s clothes. A great majority of his plays, including “All’s Well That Ends Well,” are set in royal courts.

I just saw a delightful All’s Well at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Free For All” in Washington, D.C. Placed in an attractive Victorian setting, the play’s strong cast features Golden Globe winning and Oscar-nominated actress Marsha Mason (Countess of Rossillion), Miriam Silverman (Helena), Tony Roach (Bertram), Paxton Whitehead (Lafew), Adam Green (Lavatch), Cameron Folmar (Parolles), and Ted van Griethuysen (King of France). Van Griethuysen played the same role when the company last performed All’s Well at its Free For All in 1998. The choreography and music are bonuses in the current production, and van Griethuysen dances nimbly on stage in his excellent performance.

Now, here are few more reasons to see All’s Well That Ends Well.

The Bed Trick. I think Shakespeare must be second to none in using the bed trick as a plot device. The bed trick, in which one character sleeps with another without knowing who it is, becomes the main catalyst that drives All’s Well to its odd conclusion, and you’d probably be hard pressed to find a story that does it any better. The bed trick is not the only bawdy element of the play. Early on, there’s extended off-color dialogue about virginity and a rift on a sexual taboo. A prostitute plays a big part in the story. All’s Well ranks high on the Shakespeare bawdy scale along with Pericles and Measure For Measure, the latter another play where a bed trick is central to the plot. (Why is Shakespeare so fixated on bed tricks? Good question!)

Women Rule. On the surface the King of France is in charge, assisted by various male attendants and servants. But it’s a group of strong-willed women who work together to do the impossible and bend Bertram to Helena’s will. Men in the play largely come off as fools — speaking of which, the servant Lavatch is one of Shakespeare’s best clowns. In a sense, however, it’s Helena who does the best fooling, and it’s worth watching her incredible efforts to come out on top.

Parolles. A swaggering, boastful rascal whose name means “words” in French, the character Parolles is the spark that energizes All’s Well and provides some of its funniest moments. At turns sleazy and buffoonish, this character appears so natural it’s hard to believe Shakespeare didn’t base him on some real scoundrel. In the performance I saw, Cameron Folmar’s animated rendition of Parolles stole the show.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of All’s Well runs through September 5. If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, check out the company’s easy on-line method of obtaining tickets.

Shakespeare Matters: The Hamlet “Bad” Quarto

Thomas Keene played Hamlet in the United States during the 1880’s. This poster depicts the major scenes of the play, all of which are included in the “bad” quarto though it’s little more than half the length of later versions.

It’s been called a “rough draft” with “shortcomings,” “fragmentary and unreliable.” It’s the “bad” quarto of Hamlet, the first printed text of the play. Published in 1603, it’s just over half the length of the first “good” version that appeared in 1604.

No one knows with much certainty when Hamlet was written, with some believing it could have been as early as 1589.

The “bad” quarto famously mangles Hamlet’s soliloquies, such as: “To be, or not to be, that is the point.” It has other oddities which include giving no name to Hamlet’s uncle other than “King of Denmark,” the man who murders Hamlet’s father, marries his mother (Queen Gertrude), and becomes the new King. He’s called Claudius in the 1604 version.

In the “bad” quarto, the new King repeatedly addresses his nephew Hamlet as his son. Perhaps that’s not unusual since the new King is Hamlet’s stepfather. Yet in the “good” versions of Hamlet, the new King (Claudius) refers to Hamlet as his son much less often, and more often refers to him as Queen Gertude’s son (“your son”).

In an absorbing study of Hamlet, Marc Shell, a Professor of English at Harvard University, shows how Hamlet’s paternity is ambiguous, and that the new King could well be his biological father. With its numerous references to Hamlet as the reigning monarch’s son, the “bad” quarto perhaps intended to get that point across. We’ll likely never know why the later versions change or delete many of those references.

The Taffety Punk Theatre Company played up the strangeness of what it calls the “bad ass quarto” in a recent performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. 

The company’s “bootleg” production — for which the actors rehearsed together for the first time on the day of their one and only performance — had the crazy Prince of Denmark (played by the boyish and highly likeable Marcus Kyd) streak across the stage bad-ass naked in front of a packed audience. It was Shakespeare delightfully in the raw (full disclosure: I’m a Taffety Punk supporter).

Directed by Joel David Santner, the Taffety Punk show featured additional strong performances by Eric Hissom (King of Denmark), James Beaman (Ghost of Hamlet’s father), Todd Scofield (Corambis), Kimberly Gilbert (Ofelia), Shawn Fagan (Laertes), Esther Williamson (Horatio), Joe Brack (Rossencraft) and Tonya Beckman as (“Gilderstone”).

Yes, those are how the characters’ names are spelled in the “bad” quarto.

So just how bad is the “bad” quarto of Hamlet? From the viewpoint of the most powerful man in Queen Elizabeth’s court for most of her 45-year reign, the answer would be, very bad.

Many view the character named “Corambis,” the new King’s right hand man in the “bad” quarto, as a parody of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who served as the Crown’s Secretary and Treasurer under Queen Elizabeth I. The numerous links between Corambis and Burghley include the character’s recitation of precepts to his son, Laertes, which sound very similar to those Burghley had published.

Later versions of Hamlet change the character’s name from Corambis to Polonius. In 1869, George Russel French was the first to propose that Burghley was Polonius.

Burghley’s motto was “Cor unum, via una,” Latin for “one heart, one way.” By simply substituting “ambis” for “unum,” the first part of the motto becomes “Corambis,” giving it the pejorative meaning of “double-hearted” (“bis” in Latin means “twice”). Burghley created the Queen Elizabeth’s spy service. In the turning point of the play, Corambis, who’s been spying on Hamlet and his mother, is murdered by the prince.

Corambis comes off as a vicious parody of Burghley, a long-winded, meddling, sanctimonious fool. Little wonder that subsequent versions of Hamlet changed the character’s name to Polonius.

If Corambis/Polonius was meant to represent the powerful Lord Burghley, it’s hard to believe that he (or his nearly equally powerful son, Robert Cecil, or both) wouldn’t have demanded the name change if not banned the play altogether.

To Burghley, a performance of what’s now called the “bad” quarto of Hamlet would have been bad news indeed.

Shakespeare Matters: Richard III

From London to California, Shakespeare’s Richard III is all over the place. Mark Rylance, former artistic director of The Globe Theatre and one of today’s best Shakespearean actors, has returned to the London stage in the lead role to rave reviews. In Temecula, California, Shakespeare in the Vines is staging the play through August 25 at the Callaway Vineyards and Winery, a venue where there should be wine enough to fill the barrel into which Richard III’s murdered brother is stuffed.

Born in New York City, the tragedian Thomas W. Keene, the stage name of Thomas R. Eagleson (1840-1898), played Richard III for audiences in Cincinnati and Boston during the years following the American Civil War. The panel in the upper right illustrates the play’s seduction scene in which Richard woos Lady Anne, the wife of the man he’s just murdered.

The first play to be published under Shakespeare’s name (in 1598 – up until then his plays were published anonymously), Richard III has been staged thousands of times. Listverse ranks it number 6 on the list of the Top 10 Greatest Shakespeare Plays.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival just completed a run of the play, and The Michigan Shakespeare Festival (Jackson, Michigan) is performing it through August 12. The play is in New York through August 25 thanks to The Public Theater’s “Mobile Shakespeare Unit.”

In Baltimore, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will showcase the play October 5-28.  Just down the road in Washington, DC, Brave Spirits Theatre recently finished a highly successful run of Richard III (full disclosure: I’m a Brave Spirits supporter).

Directed by Charlene V. Smith, the Brave Spirits no-frills production featured standout performances by Victoria Reinsel, Travis Blumer, and Jessica Lefkow, joined by seven other actors taking on 48 roles. Smith’s creative direction put comic relief into the scene of the murder of Richard III’s brother. For the ghost scene, Smith organized the spirits into a choir and, in an effective reordering of their  speeches, had them take turns haunting the villainous king before encouraging the Earl of Richmond, the play’s hero, to dream of victory.

Now, here are three quick reasons to see Richard III.

 A relevant story. To gain and retain power, a man slaughters his own countrymen and even children while plunging his nation into civil war. Sound familiar? It’s the story of Richard III and the story of today and, it seems, of every day, one reason audiences still connect with this play. It reminds us that no matter what century, ruthless, dictatorial leaders can make people suffer through the scourge of sectarian violence.

History lessons. Richard III offers not one but several history lessons. First, it’s a condensed version of the last seven years of the 30-year War of the Roses, a civil war in which two royal houses – York and Lancaster, the respective symbols of which were the white rose and red rose – duke it out for control of England. Historically, the play is also an early example of state propaganda. In the play, Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, slays Richard III, ending the War of the Roses and restoring peace and order to the realm. The earl, later crowned Henry VII, was the grandfather of Elizabeth Tudor, who became Queen Elizabeth I and occupied the throne when Shakespeare’s play premiered. As with all Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III opens a fascinating window into the history of our language and culture. It shows us, for example, how Elizabethans believed that a person’s natural physical appearance revealed his true nature. They also believed that toads were venomous and evil. In their eyes, Richard III, “rudely stamped” as a “poisonous bunchdback’d (hunchbacked) toad,” would be as evil as evil gets.

Showing the nature of evil. To modern eyes Richard III may not look particularly evil, but his actions prove him so – at least in comparison to the historical Richard III. By watching Shakespeare’s Richard III, you can learn a thing or two about evil men, for example how they can share the same flaws as good men, such as an overconfidence that leads to Richard III’s downfall. At its worse, evil is self-aware: Richard III is consciously bent (so to speak) on being a villain, using fear as his best tool. At the same time, evil can be charming. In one early scene, the demented protagonist manages to successfully woo Lady Anne whose husband he’s just murdered, in front of the dead man’s body no less!

Richard III’s incredible seduction scene is a challenge for actors to make believable, and another reason to see this hugely popular play.

Shakespeare Matters: “As You Like It”

Shakespeare’s gem, “As You Like It,” is still going strong after nearly four centuries. The play hits all cylinders: strong characters, plot and themes, great comedy, and language that’s a treat for the ears, especially if one reads the play before seeing it.

First published in 1623, the play was already at least 270 years old when the acclaimed Helena Modjeska starred as Rosalind in an 1893 production.

Helen Modjeska as Rosalind in 1893.

I caught a performance of “As You Like It” last week at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Normal, Illinois. (The festival runs through August 11.) Gracyn Mix and Amanda Catania are superb in the roles of Rosalind and Celia, the two young women who dress up as men and flee a cruel duke by escaping to the Forest of Arden. Dylan Paul as Rosalind’s lover, Orlando, is also excellent. He and Mix have great chemistry on stage and, with Catania, carry the play.

Now, here are five quick reasons to see “As You Like It.”

It’s funny. Reading the play, I laughed out loud at the jokes and puns, often thanks to the “clown” Touchstone who accompanies Rosalind and Celia into the forest. This play is full of satire and parodies that are best understood by reading the text. Believe me, Shakespeare is much more satisfying when the audience gets the jokes and knows when to laugh!

It’s serious. One of many things Shakespeare does wonderfully well is presenting themes with contrasting plot elements that move the story forward. In expressing the play’s “love conquers all” theme, Shakespeare will use a tense, serious scene – when the life of Rosalind or Orlando is threatened, for instance – and then follow it with a comedic scene, all the while maintaining a steady pace and flow.

It’s fascinating. Watching Shakespeare is like watching people that lived four centuries ago, resurrected before your eyes. This is how our ancestors thought, spoke and behaved. In some ways they are quite different from us − for example, they believed that “falling in love” resulted from beams shooting from lovers’ eyes and entangling with each other − and in other ways they are exactly the same. In this sense, Shakespeare provides a very interesting (and entertaining) history lesson – not just about language and culture, but about our very consciousness, showing us where we came from.

It’s music to the ears. There’s a lot of music and poetry in “As You Like It,” and wonderful speeches such as the “All the world’s a stage” monologue given by the melancholy Jacques. The bonus is that Shakespeare also delivers parodies of songs and poems, almost as if he were making fun of himself.

It’s relevant. “As You Like It” still connects with audiences with a message of hope about the magical power of love, which can transform even the cruelest of people. It’s a feel good play – there are no deaths, except for deer and a lioness that live in the forest. Shakespeare extends compassion even for the poor animals, sounding like an early animal rights activist.

Maybe that’s part of the staying power of Shakespeare. He’s so ahead of his time he’s never outdated.

Elephants: Wanted Dead…or Alive?

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of the assassins says he’ll use flattery to lure the Roman dictator to the Capitol, comparing it to how elephants are “betrayed” with “holes,” i.e., trapped with hidden pitfalls. The comparison sounds archaic, but may soon sound a lot more so: without serious intervention, some warn that the African elephant, whose ancestors have roamed the earth for 50 million years, will fall into the final hole of extinction within 20 years.

That’s right, viewers of Julius Caesar may one day ask, “what’s an elephant?” During our own lifetimes, the majestic African elephant, a highly intelligent animal that appears to have a form of language, is becoming extinct.

African elephants: headed towards extinction in 20 years.

You may think it takes magic to make elephants suddenly disappear, but it doesn’t. It’s happening right before our eyes and we know why. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there were as few as 472,000 African elephants in 2007, down from 1.3 million in 1979. That’s an average loss of over 25,000 elephants per year.

It’s no mystery how this is happening: massive numbers of elephants are being slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade.

In May, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Senator John Kerry, held hearings on the “Global Implications of Poaching in Africa.” Representatives from Save the Elephants and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species described how an armed militia, backed by organized crime, recently massacred as many as 400 elephants in the Cameroon for their ivory.

“How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction,” said Kerry.

The situation of the Asian elephant, the other species of the world’s largest land mammal, is equally dire. Today’s wild population of Asian elephants is dwindling fast and is now estimated at less than 33,000. Sadly, the plunging number may leave programs such as Elephant Trails at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. as one of the last chances for the species’ survival.

In contrast to their African cousins, the main challenge for Asian elephants is habitat loss: the forests where wild Asian elephants live are being cut down to grow cash crops, such as palm.

Asian elephants: less than 33,000 in the wild.

To his credit, Senator Kerry is taking the problem seriously. He’s introduced Senate Bill 2318  to expand the State Department’s “Rewards Program” to include transnational organized crime and reduce trafficking of all kinds. At the May hearing, he sounded open to the idea of expanding the Rewards Program to include compensating countries that destroy stockpiles of ivory, as Gabon recently has done.

What can you do? Please take a few minutes and send an email to Senator Kerry, expressing thanks for his concern about the elephants’ plight, and the hope that Senate Bill 2318 is expanded to include rewards for destroying ivory.

It’s a small contribution you can make to help keep this magnificent species alive.