Shenandoah Shakespeare Express

at the Theatre Building

I like the idea of a national Shakespeare company based in Virginia. After all, the state’s named in honor of England’s “virgin queen,” Elizabeth, whose admiration was key to Shakespeare’s success. And Shakespeare’s plays, so perplexing to us with their alternately, even simultaneously enlightened and reactionary representation of women, reflect the ambivalence of a society that believed in men’s divinely ordained dominance over women yet was ruled by a brilliant, decidedly undominated woman who epitomized virtue and purity but also toughness, independence, and shrewdness in several senses of the word–including the now-obscure definitions “sharp-tongued” and “dangerous.”

Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, a youthful ensemble making its Chicago debut in a two-week engagement at the Theatre Building, is headquartered in Harrisonburg, Virginia. And its three-play touring repertory juxtaposes two comedies about “shrewd” women who defy efforts to bind them in marriage–The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing–with Othello, a tragedy about a submissive wife who, if she’d loved a little less well but more wisely, might have survived her husband’s jealousy.

Boasting good notices from sources as diverse as the scholarly Shakespeare Quarterly and the Washington Post (whose reviewer compared Othello to O.J. Simpson!), as well as an advisory board that includes the British star Dame Judi Dench and Broadway director Jerry Zaks, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express travels year-round, bringing Shakespeare to high school and college audiences as well as community and professional venues. Founded by Ralph Alan Cohen, a professor of English at James Madison University in the Shenandoah Valley, and his former student Jim Warren, the group grew out of Cohen’s classroom experiments with a low-budget, “unplugged” Shakespearean style that eschews almost all theatrical effects in an effort to reproduce something like the original conditions for which Shakespeare wrote. For example, SSE shows use “universal” lighting that illuminates actors and audience unchangingly and equally over the course of a performance. And why not? The Globe, where Shakespeare’s company performed, was an open-air theater, after all; and SSE’s visually uncluttered, easily transportable productions remind us that Shakespeare toured too, playing the provinces or traveling to his royal fans’ various courts.

SSE’s approach is pragmatic as well as aesthetic: not demanding any special lighting capabilities or carrying any elaborate sets or sound equipment, the company is cheap to book. (Even its housing requirements are modest: during their Chicago residency, the actors are staying in a youth hostel, not a hotel.) This has allowed the company to quickly expand its itinerary, from a one-state tour in 1988 to a northeast tour the following year to 40 states this season.

But even more than simplicity and affordability, SSE’s trademark is speed. Most of its shows are two to two and a quarter hours long–brief in comparison to the three or more hours Shakespearean plays often require. The fast pace is achieved not through heavy cutting or hurried performances but through lack of pauses. There are no intermissions, no between-scene breaks, no interludes of dance, martial arts, or other pageantry. Nor are there any passages of what might be called silent acting; the performers either speak or listen to someone else speak whenever they’re in a scene. “Act and talk at the same time” is the company credo, as discussed by Cohen in a 1992 program note: “Actors have grown accustomed to acting in the spaces between the lines, and that habit can turn Shakespeare’s ‘two hours’ traffic’ into three hours of gridlock.”

So how does this emotive economy pay off onstage? The results are mixed: though likable, consistent, and never boring, SSE is far from being a company of artistic stature to match its national aspirations. Cohen’s method works better for him than for the other two directors represented on this tour; his play, Much Ado About Nothing, is by far the best effort. (This is hardly surprising; theater history is filled with cases of director-teachers whose personal style is unsuccessfully emulated by their apostles.)

Much Ado’s superiority is partly due to the play’s suitedness to SSE’s style. Cohen pays scant attention to visual effects, except for a couple of slapstick passages and a few jokey story-theater flourishes (a garden is depicted by actors with flowers in their hair; when a character hides in the garden to eavesdrop on a conversation, she puts flowers in her hair too–and is promptly watered by another character). For the most part, he presents the text with as little distraction as possible. (His chief directorial flourish is interpolating vintage popular songs–“Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”–that evoke the era of Astaire and Rogers, surely the Benedick and Beatrice of their genre.) This works well enough in a script whose enduring appeal stems primarily from the witty one-liners tossed back and forth between the “shrewd” Beatrice and the confirmed bachelor Benedick, once and future lovers engagingly played by Tricia Kelly and Thadd McQuade not as sophisticated gentlefolk but as all-American kids. More refined variations of Shrew’s Kate and Petruchio, Beatrice and Benedick hide their mutual attraction behind a facade of cutting humor, cleanly conveyed through the crisp but conversational delivery (supported by superb breath control) that’s a hallmark of Cohen’s well-trained troupe.

Much Ado also fits the company because it stays away from emotional extremes. In contrast, The Taming of the Shrew revels in them–or should. But Mary Hartman, a guest director on her first outing with SSE, never builds to the flights of outrageous hilarity that make this early play one of Shakespeare’s most popular despite its Elizabethan attitudes. Worse, she lacks a clear point of view on the controversial question of sexism. “In [her] submissive, final speech . . . is Kate serious or is she showing her husband she’s better at his game?” a program note asks. “We can never know.” Wrong: it’s the director’s job to make us know what the play’s intention is, at least according to her interpretation. But Hartman’s staging listlessly takes the text at face value, neither endorsing nor challenging its portrait of a bad-tempered woman transformed by her love for a man even more outlandish than she is. The closest the show comes to a social statement is the cast’s ironic introductory rendition of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”

Better casting would have improved things. SSE’s ensemble style prevents actors from disappearing into their roles. The performers wear color-coordinated contemporary unisex outfits (shirts and black slacks and sneakers for both men and women), refrain from hiding under wigs or makeup, and use only token accessories–a walker for an aged suitor, a policeman’s hat for a comic constable, etc. So a lot depends on the personalities of the performers. Margaret McGirr as Kate and Steve Cardamone as Petruchio never click with the audience, or with each other. Their interactions seem perfunctory–the famous first meeting, with its brilliant exchange of bawdy insults, never generates more than mild bemusement–and Kate’s emotional transformation never comes across. The words are clear, but not the psychology.

But a more fundamental problem lies in the SSE style–brisk, efficient, fresh, but also prone to glib shallowness and lack of subtextual insight. In Shrew, an early work whose lead female role is underwritten, the audience needs guidance into the conflicted and evolving thoughts and feelings behind the masterful language; it needs visual support (Petruchio’s taste for ridiculous garb is completely lost here) and the dramatic inflection of pauses now and then.

“Act and talk at the same time”: it sounds so simple. But sometimes an actor has to act in silence; after all, people don’t just talk or listen in real life. They think. They process. They respond internally to what they’ve heard, or what they’ve done, or what they’ve said. Surely Richard Burbage, the much-praised Othello of Shakespeare’s day, took a pause now and then to let feeling build–in himself and in his listeners. SSE’s Othello, directed by Jim Warren, is better than Shrew, but it exposes the same flaw in the Cohen system: by cruising quickly (though always clearly) through the tale of a Moorish general made mad by unfounded jealousy, the production mutes the relentless tragic power that stunned audiences even in Shakespeare’s day, when blacks were routinely despised and deported from England. Per the SSE formula, Warren’s staging of Othello downplays physical activity (except for Jeff Plitt and Thadd McQuade’s exciting fight choreography, some of the most vivid violence this side of a Bruce Willis movie) in favor of a comfortably conversational delivery of dialogue.

But much of the script is anything but comfortable. Othello is a figure of heroic size–not only in the audience’s eyes but in the eyes of the other characters. His grandly written speeches are weakly served by Cleve Lamison, the dreadlocked young actor playing the title role (and the company’s only African American member), who addresses his text with such understated sensitivity that he falls far short of the fury needed to drive Othello to murder. (I was more electrified by Chad Hoeppel’s anger as Beatrice’s outraged uncle Leonato in Much Ado than by Lamison’s Othello.) Mark McLane’s smug, supercilious Iago also lacks the burning intensity that must drive such a single-minded villain; and Martha Mendenhall’s diminutive, self-possessed Desdemona, grittier than the traditional passive victim, lacks the passion that would explain her determination to stay with her husband despite his dangerously escalating mood swings.

SSE has much to recommend it as introductory Shakespeare. It presents the great plays accessibly and understandably, though without much poetic power; for theatergoers in cities with less active theater communities, SSE might seem a revelation. In Chicago, though, it’s a bit redundant. From Shakespeare Repertory’s lavish and imaginative productions to the dynamic and inventive storefront Shakespeare of Folio Theatre–not to mention the often fine work of groups like the Oak Park Festival Theatre, Equity Library Theatre, Footsteps, Shakespeare’s Herd, and a slew of smaller groups–local audiences are routinely served up Shakespeare in bountiful portions. (Maybe it’s because you don’t have to pay royalties to do his plays.) To compete on this level, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express needs to move beyond the fast-paced formula that has garnered its initial burst of attention. It needs to dig deeper into the hearts and minds of Shakespeare’s rich and complex characters–and a pause for reflection might be a good way to start.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Julie Ainsworth.