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The Shrew’s Final Word: Shakespeare’s Misogyny Is Brought to Heel by a Cast of Women

Even when you’re blissing out at Shakespeare in the Park — the moon shining, the cast infectiously joyful — it’s still hard to ignore the fact that The Taming of the Shrew is pretty vile. It’s a Punch and Judy abuse comedy, but Bardophiles excuse it for its poetry; romance-minded productions try to make the central pair into a love-match. So the radical decision in Phyllida Lloyd’s carnivalesque version isn’t the (stellar) all-woman cast. No — it’s that these women actually play Shakespeare’s violence without apology. There’s fun to be had at Shrew, but maybe this is the final word on the play: Men should henceforth be too ashamed to do it.

Lest you think our politics have evolved, Lloyd frames the thing as a Miss Italy pageant, complete with imperious Trumpian voiceovers. Cush Jumbo’s Katherina competes with sister Bianca (Gayle Rankin) at the urging of father Baptista (LaTanya Richardson Jackson); slobbering men (including suitors Judy Gold and Donna Lynne Champlin) grunt and clap. Janet McTeer’s Petruchio breaks Katherina to marriage while swaggering like Mick Jagger — she’s so masculine, she’s feminine again — giving a performance worth standing in line for. Indeed, the deep bench of women performing next to her (particularly Jackson, Champlin, and Adrienne C. Moore as a servant-in-disguise) are Lloyd’s real rebuke to the patriarchy. Why do we do Shakespeare any other way? We don’t seem to be missing anything of value.


Shakespeare in the Park: The Taming of the Shrew
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Delacorte Theater
Central Park at 81st Street
212-539-8500, publictheater.org
Through June 26

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‘Cymbeline’ in the Park Is a Smidge Showy, but Who’s Complaining?

Shakespeare titled his late romance Cymbeline, and words emblazoned on the back curtain at this Shakespeare in the Park production read, “The Story of Cymbeline.”

But this often absurd tale of innocent love belongs more to slandered daughter Imogen (Lily Rabe) than to her royal father in the title role. The Delacorte’s mainstay director Daniel Sullivan offers a boppy but not particularly introspective look at Imogen’s distress.

His do-no-harm approach keeps things jokey and works hard to entertain, adding enough song-and-dance numbers to please the most attention-deficient groundling. (Raúl Esparza, who makes a delightfully raffish villain as Iachimo, owns the show after entering with a swaggering Vegas-style number.)

[pullquote]As Iachimo, Raúl Esparza owns the show after entering with a swaggering Vegas-style number.[/pullquote]

Rabe plays opposite Hamish Linklater, who doubles as Imogen’s besotted husband Posthumus and his dimwitted rival Cloten. Both members of the amiable acting duo — often seen center stage at the Delacorte — bring their winning personalities and good sport to the task, though they frequently hold the verse hostage to their contemporary inflections.

They’re hardly the only actors to work the language for laugh value, but hey, it’s the park, it’s August, and populism prevails over subtlety. (Plus, the cast boasts a coterie of appealing folks in supporting roles.) Cymbeline‘s poetic dimensions are notoriously well cached, and Sullivan’s colorful mounting does little to bring them out.

But when Imogen, betrayed, finally cries out, “What is it to be false?” we spot just enough pain behind the romantic shenanigans for a midsummer night.

Cymbeline
By William Shakespeare
Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater (in Central Park)
Central Park West at 81st Street
212-539-8500, publictheater.org

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Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Tempest’ Fails to Resonate

Like their characters clinging to the rails of a storm-tossed boat, the actors stand exposed to the elements in this open-air production of The Tempest. Rain. Heat. Moths. Helicopters that fly overhead just as Ferdinand, the prince of Naples, happens to say, “I hear it now above me.” Shakespeare’s play begins with a shipwreck and leads us to an island where the climate confounds nearly everyone who roams it.

[pullquote]Free Shakespeare is such a worthy effort that it feels mutinous to wonder why the bar gets set so low.[/pullquote]

I wish I could report that the company’s efforts reincarnate the challenges of Central Park into a midsummer night’s magic. Free Shakespeare is such a worthy effort that it feels mutinous to wonder, as I did watching Michael Greif’s discombobulated staging, why the bar for classical theater in New York gets set so low. Here’s one of the most familiar of Shakespeare’s plays — a dull repertory choice — with performers who seem disconnected from what they’re saying. It’s an overproduced and underwhelming mounting with no apparent point of view on the drama.

The various parties — drunken servants worshipped as masters; plotting courtiers; young lovers — barely seem to inhabit the same place, much less an island full of astounding and bewildering spirits. Sam Waterston, a Delacorte veteran, summons neither stature nor gravitas as the magician Prospero; his powers come off more perfunctory. The drama needs an omniscient overlord everyone can believe in, but in rendering the verse in eccentric rhythms, Waterston gives us a daffy old fellow rather than a statesman with a plan. The captive spirit Ariel (Chris Perfetti) is all wispiness, more of a pouter than a soul burning for freedom. Bare-chested in a harness, Perfetti looks the fairy-slave part, but it doesn’t mean much. Louis Cancelmi, as the deformed and rebellious native Caliban, embraces the disfigurement mentioned in the text, making him a tortured creature who speaks in a mewling drawl. It’s the boldest acting choice in the show, but it also blunts Caliban’s expression — one of the best parts of the drama. His native islander’s speech, declaring the injustice of his subjection, gets buried and ultimately lost — and with it go the play’s colonial dimensions.

Meanwhile we gaze at banners, hanging from upstage scaffolding, emblazoned with blown-up photos of a rough sea. It looks like a bank’s ad for the play, and somehow Riccardo Hernandez’s set acquires an air of quick-idea branding rather than spatial metaphor. When Prospero, the deposed duke of Milan, completes his magic and restores natural political order, the banners fall, revealing glimpses of the park’s green treetops in the far yonder. That’s the largest, and really the only, conceptual gesture in an otherwise remarkably literal staging.

This might be an exciting and debate-worthy failure, had the misfires resulted from some ambitious retooling of Shakespeare. Instead it’s merely conventional psychological scene-work, sloppily executed. But the Delacorte offers a wonderful space in the heart of the city, and Shakespeare in the Park reliably becomes the season’s most prominent classical drama. Given the recent successes of its parent organization, the Public Theater, might it be time to develop the Delacorte stage, too, with more unusual repertory? To turn it over to the fresher, young, adventurous talents the Public has been cultivating in its new work? A pre-show recording of artistic director Oskar Eustis emphatically declares that “this is YOUR theater.” But nothing about this dull regional-theater mounting speaks to us in 2015. Certainly there’s no theatrical magic to apprehend, however much Prospero waves his wand.

The Tempest
By William Shakespeare
Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater (Central Park West at 81st Street)
212-539-8500, publictheater.org

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Too E-Z Is the Head That Wears the Crown

One of the many obstacles to a truly great American classical theater tradition is the way we reflexively default to contemporary naturalism. Actors, often trained to assimilate a role into personal experience, work to relate characters created centuries ago to people like themselves and those they observe around them. But are they really like us? Directors hope immediacy will bridge the gaps between the empires of Elizabeth and Obama, making a play transcend time. But hundreds of years ago, social rules, religious convictions, and speech codes were different. Embracing the strangeness and formality of a venerable play (and its language) might work better than trying to tease out its familiar qualities; by definition the latter approach would seem guaranteed to flatten or obscure the script’s true power.

Daniel Sullivan’s uninspiring production of King Lear, the Public Theater’s final Free Shakespeare in the Park presentation, is a good example of this diminishing effect. Visually there’s plenty to suggest a chapter in human history we can’t relate to: Men wear earth-toned tunics and battle with swords; women are decked out in draping dresses. We stare at a giant, upstage wall with a burlap texture and a medieval look, punctured by what look like hundreds of large needles. (When the lighting changes, this structure evokes a forest of trees.) Rugged, wooden posts and platforms call to mind a rustic, preindustrial society of warriors.

Yet Lear’s daughters, Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht), are poised, commanding, and utterly contemporary American women in their mannerisms and speech. When they rebuke their father for his friends’ rowdiness, there’s little sense of generational transgression or the shifting of the political power dynamic. Characters strut and pace aimlessly or point and gesture with contemporary verve, even as they speak in iambic pentameter. It’s a problem spread across this production, whose A-list cast rarely delves into the tragedy’s epic dimensions. That sells King Lear short. Shakespeare offers a play about more than domestic discord; it’s also a magnificent reflection on power and its permutations over time, on madness, and on numerous other themes that electrify the verse.

John Lithgow labors in the title role but never quite finds the stature of a disenfranchised monarch — a king betrayed by his own family and then redeemed when it’s too late. The star struggles to shake a self-conscious, slightly goofy quality that inhabits his persona. And because we never see him in truly regal command in early scenes, it’s hard to ignore the disjuncture when he later howls with fury on the rain-soaked heath.

So it’s not Lithgow who supplies us with a glimpse of Shakespeare’s mind-bending cataclysm. Chukwudi Iwuji — first as Gloucester’s wronged son Edgar and (especially) later as the deranged hermit Poor Tom (Edgar’s disguise and alter ego) — steals the thunder. Iwuji delivers an arresting performance, leaping headfirst into grotesque distortion when Edgar “becomes” Poor Tom, guiding the exiled Lear through the countryside. Wild-eyed and writhing on the ground, Iwuji gives us a vision of loyalty as insanity. He bores through to the drama’s inner layers and lets us hear his words as more than just something to recite with contemporary flair. Here’s hoping we see him in another major classical role soon.

In the meantime, we can only wish this production had more of Iwuji’s investment in unhinging his character from realism and wringing out every word.

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THIS AMERICAN LIFE

Forget all those conspiracy theories about the Earl of Oxford; only a drinkin,’ brawlin,’ pub-dwellin’ man could have penned the potty-mouthed jokes that liven up even the Bard’s darkest dramas. In America we like our beer cold and our playwrights belligerent, so as far as we’re concerned, William has always been one of us. The new anthology Shakespeare in America traces his influence on every level of our national culture from poets to presidents. Tonight, to celebrate the book’s release, James Earl Jones returns to the Delacorte to read from Othello, reprising the role he first played here 50 years ago. Also appearing are Alec Baldwin (fresh off his Fifth Avenue biking arrest and subsequent hissyfit), performing scenes from Macbeth, and Steven Pasquale, belting songs from West Side Story (that counts as Shakespeare, right?), as well as readings by F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Alexander, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Nixon, and many more.

Mon., June 30, 8 p.m., 2014

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Laura Benanti

She’s strutted on Broadway musical stages and nabbed a Tony, she’s showing up as a hospital exec on USA’s Royal Pains, she was just at the Delacorte Theater for The Tempest, playing a goddess and wearing something she might have worn as Gypsy Rose Lee, and now she’s back here doing the cabaret thing. You can bet no one thinks she doesn’t sizzle in these surroundings: Todd Almond, who wrote the hot Tempest score and her hot-hot-hot number, is the musical director and arranger.

Thu., Sept. 19, 7 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 20, 8 & 11 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 21, 8 p.m., 2013

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Love’s Labour’s Lost: Higher Education

Four ladies, four dudes, some wacky clowns, and lots of wordplay—sounds like a foolproof formula for Shakespearean comedy, right? In the case of Love’s Labour’s Lost, though, it’s not that simple: On its surface, the play is a love-fest celebrating youthful freedom and skewering self-righteous pedantry; underneath, it’s also quite self-conscious and dark. Characters are obsessed with their own character types, intricacies of language inspire lengthy digressions, and the ending veers abruptly away from the quadruple-wedding bonanza we’re led to expect. Too often, directors ignore the play’s minor key, trying to turn Love’s Labour’s Lost into the predictable rom-com it isn’t.

So it’s a delight that the Public’s new musical version—adapted and directed by Alex Timbers, with charming songs by Michael Friedman—engineers a true match between Shakespearean comedy and musical theater, without smothering the play’s pricklier parts. On the patio of a Poconos-style resort, the King of Navarre (Daniel Breaker) holds a solemn ceremony with his best buddies Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham), and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe). They’ve come to the country to fulfill a vow of scholarly self-denial, abstaining from romance, booze, and culinary indulgence, the better to bury themselves in books. But no sooner have they relinquished their Bud Lights than temptation comes traipsing up the lawn, in the form of four old flames: the Princess (Patti Murin) and her lovely sidekicks (Maria Thayer, Kimiko Glenn, and Audrey Lynn Weston). Will the boys maintain their studious remove, or surrender to hormonal thrills? More importantly, are love and intellect as incompatible as they seem?

Setting these high jinks at an elite college reunion—think Gossip Girl goes camping—provides endless opportunities for lampooning cushy dorm life, where academia battles hedonistic temptation. Adorno and Kierkegaard, cafeteria waffle stations, late nights, and unlimited supplies of pot are all entertainingly mocked. Two oblivious professor types, spewing unintelligible jargon on the sidelines of the plot, are hilarious, their convoluted chatter clashing with other characters’ modern speech (and their academic-regalia nightgowns are not to be missed). A frank romance between Spanish interloper Don Armado (Caesar Samayoa) and barmaid Jaquenetta (Rebecca Naomi Jones) contrasts poignantly with the upper class’s guarded flirtations—especially when Jaquenetta sings the evening’s darkest song, a brooding ballad titled “Love’s a Gun.”

Timbers weaves modern dialogue with Shakespeare’s original, steering us succinctly from one exuberant song to the next. Delicious group numbers illustrate the boys’ defections from scholarship to courtship, as they compose desperate love poems to their previously spurned maidens. Dumaine woos in Elizabethan garb, while Longaville’s passion finds form in a tap-dance spectacular. The girls are delightfully defiant, careening around in a golf cart armed with Slurpees to battle their ex-beaux. Best of all, musical theater’s embrace of the unsubtle allows for the theatrical self-consciousness that makes this play so smart. Rosaline, the Princess’s BFF, muses on the perils of always playing snarky sidekick—never romantic lead—while the whole cast reminds us that real-life stories don’t wrap up as tidily as plays.

Such total adaptation has its perils: Timbers slashes so much Shakespeare that it’s a joy when the actors actually speak it, and a reminder of the rich poetry we’re missing out on. Still, Friedman and Timbers gracefully capture the play’s important ideas—that intellect and passion aren’t enemies but mutually necessary—in highly enjoyable form, an all-inclusive theatrical vacation I’d happily take again.

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FINE ROMANCE

’Tis the season of class reunions, and the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is giving you a seat at a royal one. For this contemporary musical adaptation by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers (the team behind the rockin’ show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), the action starts at the five-year college reunion of the king and his best friends, who make a pact to avoid the temptations of women. But whenfour pretty ladies from their past show up, all bets are off.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: July 23. Continues through Aug. 18, 2013

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The Comedy of Errors Serves Up Midcentury Mayhem; The Explorers Club Doesn’t Discover Much

What lies along the bus route from Syracuse to Schenectady? In the Public Theater’s cheerful Comedy of Errors—now playing in Central Park—it’s Ephesus, town of endlessly confused identities, cigar-puffing mafiosi, and the occasional flying baloney. Shakespeare’s Roman-inspired comedy, as imagined by Daniel Sullivan, plays out in high ’30s style, amid rosy-brick buildings evoking midcentury New York, and punctuated by acrobatic feats of swing dancing. It’s a charming combination.

Twin brothers Antipholus (both played by Hamish Linklater) and their servants, the equally identical brothers Dromio (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), were separated as babies by an eerily egalitarian shipwreck: Each Antipholus wound up with his own Dromio to boss around. Now, as grown-ups, the Syracusan pair seeks their long-lost doppelgangers. Soon, all four twins (or rather, two dexterous actors) are bopping around Ephesus, fetching the wrong props, dining with the wrong wives, and barking orders at the wrong servants. Their dad’s also nearby—under a death sentence for being a Syracusan in Ephesus—and their mom might be, too, in nunnish disguise. (The family is surely in the running for holding the most improbable reunion in literature.) Sullivan keeps these escapades to a crisp 90 minutes. Linklater and Ferguson render the wordplay delightfully dry, and the trench-coated mobsters guarding Syracuse—doofy as they are—add a much-needed hint of danger.

With so much mistaken-identity fodder in Shakespeare’s comic canon, it’s tempting to wonder what’s inspiring about The Comedy of Errors, the lightest of the bunch. This production, with its efficient humor and emphasis on sameness—each pair of brothers is just one guy with a lot of entrances and exits—suggests the shallowness of identities of all kinds. Despite the maniacal pratfalls, there are serious questions hidden here.

Globe-trotting and identity confusion also abound in Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club (now at MTC)—a Victorian-style farce that, despite being new, feels far fustier than Shakespeare. Here, a venerable London society—its headquarters crammed with taxidermy and exotic carvings—grapples with some challenges to institutional precedent. One member has located the lost tribes of Israel (hint: Irish jokes ahead), while another’s just pinpointed the elusive “East Pole.” But this is nothing compared to the shock delivered by accomplished scientist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), who boldly petitions for membership—despite being female.

Spotte-Hume bolsters her application with a specimen from her newly discovered “lost city”: a native she’s dubbed Luigi (Carson Elrod), who’s blue-chested, be-feathered, and (seemingly) docile, perfect for the scientists’ presentation to Queen Victoria. Distressingly, though, the palace visit devolves into mayhem: Her Majesty is slapped, a cobra escapes, and a beloved guinea pig meets its doom. Soon, the club is besieged by a menacing melange of Irish-slash-Jews, the British army, and decapitation-happy Eastern monks. Only a well-stirred round of cocktails can put things right; luckily, Luigi’s discovered a last-minute flair for mixology.

If only Benjamin had a similar flair for farce. There are quips, quivering mustaches, and period Britishisms, but the overall effect combines a stodgy premise with a casually off-color tone. Are we really so advanced that feminism is a quaint concern of yesteryear—and what about poor Luigi, whose treatment by Benjamin isn’t self-aware enough to make up for being baldly tasteless? This would matter less if The Explorers Club traversed new territory or offered genuine amusement; as is, it’s as stale as the stuffed walrus adorning the club’s wall.

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SEEING DOUBLE

Though June 21 is officially the first day of summer, for New Yorkers it’s the opening of The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park that marks the changing of the seasons. This year, the free outdoor series kicks off with The Comedy of Errors, which brings together Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the twins Antipholus and Dromio, respectively. Daniel Sullivan will direct the play, which concerns two sets of twins, separated at birth and reunited as adults. Later this summer, catch a musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost, opening July 23. Tickets are available either at the box office, which opens at noon, on the day of the show or via the online lottery system.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: May 28. Continues through June 30, 2013