Et tu, dude? Why do directors take Shakespeare so far from his contexts?


Shakespeare Theatre Company set “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Phil Hosford, Floyd King, Aayush Chandan and Jacob Perkins, in 1930s Cuba and drew criticism for changing characters’ names into what some perceived as ethnic stereotypes. (Scott Suchman/Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Members of the theatergoing jury: I come before you today to speak in favor of men in tights.

It is the fashion in these meddling times — now perhaps more than ever — to put the doublets in mothballs and tie up Shakespeare in the threads of ponderous context. Only cursory consideration seems to be given in Washington or Baltimore, London or New York to whether it makes sense to dress Petruchio in chaps or Macbeth’s witches in the aprons of abattoir workers. To transport Lear to the heath of “Waiting For Godot” or Shylock to a tenement on the Lower East Side. To decide that Messina is not on Sicily but a stone’s throw from Havana, or that the Rome of “Julius Caesar” was actually meant to be the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein.

Yes, somehow, a consensus has been reached that William Shakespeare was not a playwright but a time-travel agent, one whose points of geographic and temporal reference were meant as mere suggestions. A milestone of sorts was achieved this season at Washington’s Tony Award-winning Shakespeare Theatre Company, where all three of its Shakespeare productions — “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and current “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — have been set, with wildly varying degrees of success, in the century between 1915 and now.

The city’s other influential outlet for Shakespeare, the Folger Theatre, has proved just as seducible by directors lugging in their conceptual baggage. A rootin’, tootin’ “The Taming of the Shrew,” set in the Old West, just finished a run in its Capitol Hill playhouse, where one would have been forgiven for wondering why angry Kate didn’t use her trusty gun, or how Padua wound up being a suburb of Tombstone. The scouting for unique environments in which to speak in iambic pentameter goes on apace in other major cities: Witness the arch and overpraised new “As You Like It” in New York’s Central Park, set in the wilderness of mid-19th-century America, with banjo-picking exiles from the court — in this case, a fort like those eternally under attack in vintage cowboy-and-Indian flicks.

The fussing with the cosmetics of Shakespeare has become so routine that it is a shock to more devoted patrons of the Bard when any of his plays are performed these days in both the time and place the author intended them. Has a belief taken hold that only by placing Shakespeare’s characters in elaborate disguise can a contemporary theatergoer view them as relevant? The compulsive tinkering yields distressing side effects. Distracted audiences can not only lose touch with the pleasure of listening to Shakespeare’s language but also may become less able to distinguish clearly the worthier attempts at innovation.

The application, for instance, of anachronism to enlarge a theme can be a very useful tool, one that director Rebecca Bayla Taichman employed to fine effect in her abstracted updating of “The Taming of the Shrew” at Shakespeare Theatre in 2007. The difference here was in a director, challenging “Shrew’s” antiquated view of women, who carefully chose a dim sum of modern references that helped us see where attitudes have (or haven’t) evolved since Shakespeare’s time. In the cases of Shakespeare’s broader comedies, where the expectation expands for some degree of absurdity, the demand for rigorous logic recedes. This is partly why director Michael Kahn’s psychedelic Beatles-inspired “Love’s Labor’s Lost” in 2006 proved so easy to digest — and like.

Certainly, the exuberant elasticity of Shakespeare’s brain, and the sometimes fantastic landscapes he conjured, for places he’d never been — the enchanted island of “The Tempest”; the Alexandria of “Antony and Cleopatra” — justifiably electrify the creative impulses of directors and designers. I have no desire to curb the fertile dreamers of the theater. Sometimes a play fairly seamlessly accommodates a temporal transfer, as director Stephen Rayne accomplishes in his “Merry Wives,” by retaining the evocative English milieu of Windsor and simply pushing the era forward to World War I. And for the purposes of introducing the youngest to Shakespeare, some artful analogizing is useful, as the playwright Ken Ludwig has demonstrated, in adapting Shakespeare for high school drama clubs.

What I pine for, though, is for dreaming to be tailored a bit more conscientiously to the contours of the plays — and common sense.

How far from sense the ideas can veer was illustrated in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent transposition of “Much Ado About Nothing” to a hacienda in 1930s Cuba. Director Ethan McSweeny’s overly specific reinterpretation not only compelled an audience into a contrived cultural framework but also committed the clumsy error of translating characters’ names into what some perceived as ethnic stereotypes. The low characters Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal became Juan Huevos and Jose Frijoles. After protests were raised, many of them by Latino artists, the production sensibly reverted to the original Shakespearean names.

As in Aaron Posner’s Wild West “Shrew” at Folger, it erred by hewing so faithfully to a concept that it was drained of an ineffable essence of authenticity.

My sneaking suspicion is that the mania for transporting a Rosalind or a Richard III to a newfangled forest or kingdom may sometimes be an anxious reflex, a product of a general unease in contemporary theater over the rigors of speaking the verse and fully illuminating character. What better way to take some of the pressure off a cast’s uneven vocal skills than to plop actors into realms in which the flatness of speech more easily echoes that of our own?

Some of the problems of transposition can be mitigated by actors of elite skill; Ian Merrill Peakes, whose range at Folger has encompassed both Iago and Henry VIII, comes to mind as an interpreter of Shakespeare who transcends concept; there is an invisibility to his technique —and a confidence with the language — that allows him to be absorbed into any scenario. For me, though, the ultimate in high-concept Shakespeare is a stripping away of all concept, epitomized by director Trevor Nunn’s extraordinary “Macbeth” with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, way back in 1976. I’ve never again felt the minds of Elizabethan villains opened so nakedly before me.

Perhaps it’s the perpetual yearning for Shakespeare with that kind of sizzling immediacy that fuels my impatience with the intrusive global bunting that’s draped over his plays. And maybe that’s why my recent visit to Staunton, Va.’s American Shakespeare Center, where the staging is crisp and unvarnished, felt like such a tonic. In any event, I’m not holding my breath for a wholesale shift to bare-bones stagings and simpler dramatic virtues. The next time Verona looks like Vegas, or Viola pulls up in a Volvo, I’ll merely chalk it up to the same old, same old.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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