Shakespeare: Much to admire, but something’s missing

By David Allen, Cape Cod Times

There certainly have been a lot of things done to, and with, the works of William Shakespeare through the years. Drag productions, productions set in the Old West and in outer space. Even attempts, particularly in the 19th century, to rewrite the endings of the tragedies for a more pleasant conclusion. (Look! Romeo and Juliet do live happily ever after!)

The appeal is obvious. The playwright has been dead for hundreds of years and thus can’t collect royalties or complain about what’s being done to his work. Not that he would, however. Although we know comparatively little about the life of Shakespeare, we do know that he was mostly in it for the money. He went to London to make his living in the theater, and when he made enough from his plays and part ownership of the Globe Theatre, he retired and high-tailed it back to Stratford. Even so, the plays themselves are so complex and rich that they invite a variety of interpretations and treatments, and that’s a good thing.

Which brings us the latest work of the Elements Theatre Company: “Shakespeare’s Own — Vicious or Virtuous …. You Decide: Scenes From Hamlet and King Lear.” The gimmick here is that the company presents selected scenes from two of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, “Hamlet” and “King Lear,” and then asks audience members to vote “vicious” or “virtuous” for selected characters via ballots placed on their chairs. At the end, the results of the voting are revealed.

On the plus side, this is a company that really knows how to do Shakespeare. It is beautifully staged and, even better, magnificently acted. The entire acting company is superb. It has clearly worked hard on the language — the text is there in all its glory. But, more important, the director, Sister Danielle Dwyer (who also plays Queen Gertrude in “Hamlet”) and her cast have understood completely that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not as great reading material. The actions of the characters, their motives and machinations, are all brilliantly played out. As just one example of many, the scene in which King Lear, very ably rendered by Brad Lussier, curses his own daughter is heartbreaking. The entire company does a terrific job of expressing the actions of the plays, not just the words. You never get the sense that characters are standing around waiting for their next line. They are always fully and completely “in the moment.” It’s a real joy to watch.

The visual aspect of the production is equally well-done. The costumes are all rendered in shades of gray, presumably to avoid too much delineation and, thus, tipping the vote. But they are richly made and the somber tone makes the occasional use of vivid red in set pieces a visual treat. The simple staging, using only platforms and boxes, serves to highlight what Shakespeare knew — it’s all about the actor. And these actors bring the worlds of Hamlet and King Lear vividly to life.

But, ultimately, it’s hard to get past what’s missing. Presumably, if Shakespeare could have effectively told the story of Hamlet in an hour and a half, instead of the actual four-hour running time, he would have done so. (His primary goal being schillings, they might have been able to do two shows on Thursdays.) There’s no “To be, or not to be” in this production. Hamlet doesn’t have a lot of time for in-depth self-reflection. Lear, too, descends into madness awfully quickly. Or is that because we know there’s more than what we’re seeing? It’s an interesting question: Because the plays of Shakespeare are so much a part of our cultural consciousness, is this “tinkering with the Bard” a flawed enterprise from the start? One of the delights of the movie “Shakespeare in Love” was watching that audience experience “Romeo and Juliet” for the very first time. It was probably the last audience to, in total, have no clue what was going to happen at the end. We know, though, that there’s more to “King Lear” and “Hamlet” than this two-hour-plus performance, and while it’s very skillfully done, does the attempt to distill certain characters into either-or, one-word descriptions justify the cutting?

I, for one, would have much rather seen this skilled ensemble attempt either one of the plays in full. For all of his other virtues, what Shakespeare did best was create multidimensional, fully human characters. Even the villainous Richard III becomes admirable in his treacherous skill. It’s hard not to be somehow impressed by a guy who can attempt to seduce the widow of someone he’s just killed at the man’s funeral. It’s nearly an exercise in futility, even in a truncated version, to distill Hamlet down to “vicious” or “virtuous.” Even once we do so, what’s the point?

It would be highly enjoyable to watch the talented Rachel McKendree play Ophelia in her entirety, or have Chris Kanaga explore all of the rich facets of King Claudius. This company could do a great job with either of these or almost any play by Shakespeare. What it has done is highly theatrical and exceptional. But I’d give up the chance to vote to see it do the whole play.