Review of SORT OF SHAKESPEARE
Wild Women Writing Sponsor Shakespearean Double-Header
Have you read Hamlet? Don’t be surprised if an actor playing a character in a spoof of Shakespeare’s masterwork breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to ask you this vital question. Even if your answer is negative, you don’t have to “fake it” to appreciate two original dramas linked at the hip by the words of the Bard.
The first is an adaptation by playwright Cecily O’Neill of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s first narrative poem, published in 1593, bringing him instant fame, especially among male undergraduates who, rumor has it, slept with a copy under their pillow. No doubt, this was to absorb the play’s earthy sensuality, which must have been somewhat shocking for the time period. With this go-around, Shakespeare’s woo-fest may seem tamer than originally intended, but it’s nonetheless mesmerizing. Director Katherine Burkman weaves a sensuous, choreographed dance of sorts between Venus, played with passion by Chiquita Mullins Lee, and the hapless Adonis, enacted adroitly by James Hughes. Throughout the performance, Lee seductively tugs and pulls and thwarts and redirects the heartstrings—or are they puppet strings?—of a resistant Hughes, much like a spider spinning an invisible web around the flailing motions of her victim. A tour de force of iambic pentameter quatrains and couplets lends the play an energetic momentum. Narrating the action from the wings are Burkman as Flora, fertility goddess of spring, and Todd Singer as Vulcan, one-time consort to Venus who once ensnared the goddess of love in an unbreakable chain in the middle of her adulterous affair with Mars, god of war. They maintain a cool perspective on a passion play between opposites, a volatile mix of estrogen and testosterone that bubbles around the central question: Will Adonis succumb to Venus’s wiles? As my companion for last Saturday night’s performance reminded me afterward, “All those mortals were just sexual playthings of the gods.” And maybe this is what Adonis doesn’t want to be, just another pretty face in Venus’s portfolio. In the follow-up discussion with cast members, Hughes expressed his own perplexity as to the motive behind Adonis’s brusque rebuffs of Venus’s sinuous advances. “That’s just how I was instructed to play it,” he jested before adding, on a more reflective note, the supposition that there may have been a homosexual theme at work in the subtext.
What links this play with the next is this very inscrutability of the male protagonist. Adonis may have harbored an idealized vision of love versus lust that keeps him at a distance, or he may simply have preferred the manly pursuit of a boar hunt to Venus’s feminine boudoir. But what’s up with Hamlet? This is the central perplexity in A Riff on Hamlet, written and directed by Burkman. As with Venus and Adonis, an onstage narrator guides the action, not just with words this time but also with mood music, an original score played on keyboard by composer Stefan Farrenkopf. Burkman’s riff offers intensive scrutiny of the male lead, as Farrenkopf, Christy Brothers, and Jon Osbeck take turns playing multiple roles of several characters from Shakespeare’s play—and even a servant of Burkman’s own invention—who come forward to soliloquize on Hamlet’s many flaws, tragic or otherwise. Ophelia, played by Brothers, blasts his chauvinism, while Gertrude, also by Brothers, lays into her son’s hypocritical morality. Osbeck’s Laertes attacks Hamlet’s honor, and Farrenkopf’s Ghost roasts his son’s indecisiveness. All this in the vein of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which gets a nod of recognition from Burkman as her versions of the comic duo wonder aloud, “Are we dead?” Even best friend Horatio feels bewildered by the role his dying hero asked him to play, while Claudius frets about having an overabundance of conscience for a stage villain. Through it all, Hamlet sits on stage, mute for once, unwilling to address the charges against him or offer any explanation that would provide insight into the delay that turned his play into a five-act tragedy. Or maybe he’s just unable to respond, a dupe of Burkman’s ploy of taking away the voice of this otherwise most voluble of stage personas.
The setting of these plays is intimate. Black tablecloths adorn round tables suggesting a cabaret style of performance, and there is something improvisational about these dramas, as though audience members are privileged to witness plays in process. With lighting by Rachel Harper and original artwork by Kate Arnold projected at key moments, Sort of Shakespeare is sort of tragic, sort of comic, and much more than “sort of” worth the price of admission.