Strawdog Theatre Company


Shakespeare’s Herd

at the Greenview Arts Center

Most people are familiar with the notion that Shakespeare might not have been Shakespeare. As if they didn’t have more important things to worry about, plenty of people have made avocations and even careers out of trying to prove that Stratford’s most famous son was just a front for the 17th Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe or someone else. Less well known are the continuing debates over the sources of some of the plays that Shakespeare–whoever he was–wrote. The Taming of the Shrew, for example, is the subject of contention between proponents and disputers of the “Ur-Shrew” theory, which holds that the comedy we know was revised from an earlier, lost draft.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald’s witty Shakespeare spoof, playfully posits an “Ur-Othello.” MacDonald’s heroine, Constance Ledbelly, is a mousy scholar obsessed with a literary conspiracy theory: that Shakespeare stole two of his greatest tragedies, Othello and Romeo and Juliet, from now-forgotten comedies with the aid of an alchemist who secretly preserved the source manuscript. Constance’s notion rests largely on the fact that the ridiculous plot contrivances seem more appropriate to comedy than tragedy; all that’s missing from the plays, she decides, is a wise Fool to set things straight.

The same is true of Constance’s own pathetic life, which revolves around Claude Knight, the smug professor whom she loves unrequitedly while serving as his assistant. An insecure introvert whose idea of a good time is a run of Ibids in the footnotes of a literary essay, Constance is the real author of the brilliant articles that have won Claude a teaching post at Oxford (she wrote them with a quill pen made from the feathers of a beloved dead parakeet). Devastated when Claude informs her he’s not taking her with him, she’s thrust into a turbulent twilight zone (hosted by a narrator who sounds and smokes just like Rod Serling), a fantasy world constructed from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a much more violent world than the bookish Constance had bargained for; people may speak in beautiful blank verse, but they talk about cockfights, bearbaiting, public hangings, war, and murder.

Yet Constance proves herself a hero and lover right at home with Elizabethan extremes. No longer an exploited spinster, she’s elevated to the role of Othello’s “virgin oracle” and “vestal mascot” after she exposes Iago’s plot to smear Desdemona’s reputation; and she’s delighted that the Ur-Desdemona is no passive victim but a feisty proto-feminist with a warrior’s taste for bloody battle. Then, catapulted to Renaissance Verona, Constance once again rewrites literary history: disguised as a boy, she duels with Tybalt, saves Romeo’s life, and dissuades Western drama’s most famous teenage lovers from their double suicide. But the young newlyweds quickly grow bored with each other and turn their passionate attentions to Constance, who finds herself in the peculiar position of so many cross-dressing heroines employed by Shakespeare to flirt with homoeroticism. “But I’m not–you know–I’m not a lesbian,” protests Constance, speaking in iambic pentameter just like everyone else. “Unless you count that one time in grade eight / When Ginnie Radclyffe did my portrait. . . . She’s married now and can’t recall a thing.”

Though Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) has its flaws–in particular a choppy, overlong second half that makes its point several scenes before the play ends–MacDonald’s witty wordplay (bawdy jokes, literary puns, impressive versifying) and her quirkily feminist revisions of Shakespearean story telling make this show great fun. Paul Engelhardt’s Strawdog Theatre staging, featuring combat choreography by Danny Robles, takes low-budget necessity and turns it into an aesthetic, with mixed results; though Dan Frazier’s set, which transforms present-day Canada to Shakespearean settings, undermines its own imaginativeness by its mechanical clunkiness, Elea Crowther’s mock-Elizabethan costumes are cleverly colorful yet tacky. The cast–including Susan Shimer as the earnestly eccentric Constance, Elizabeth Laidlaw as the amazonian Desdemona, Richard Shavzin as an unlikely schlemiel of a Romeo, Jo Ann Oliver as his bratty, hyper-hormonal Juliet, and Kenny Williams in a campy music-hall drag turn as Juliet’s nurse–deliver MacDonald’s verse with a generally restrained, even deadpan forthrightness; their lack of polish gives an engaging rough edge to the script’s comic floridness. Take Constance on the plight of women in elitist academia: “It is quite dog eat dog. And scary too. / I’ve slaved for years to get my doctorate, / But in a field like mine that’s so well trod, / You run the risk of contradicting men / Who’ve risen to the rank of sacred cow, / And dying on the horns of those who rule / The pasture with an iron cud.” This is a sweet, smart, funny play that well deserves an audience.

Back to the “Ur-Shrew”: This hypothetical script is believed by some to be the source of both The Taming of the Shrew, whose date is uncertain, and an inferior work, The Taming of a Shrew, published in 1594. Among the two scripts’ differences is the size of a minor role, Christopher Sly, a comic drunk for whom the main story of the shrew Kate and her tamer Petruchio is performed as a play within a play. Both The Shrew and A Shrew, one argument holds, are revisions of the “Ur-Shrew”; A Shrew is supposedly a bastard script compiled from memory by actors who’d performed in the now-missing play–among them William Sly, after whom Christopher Sly was probably named and for whom the part may have been written.

Shakespeare’s Herd, having arrived at The Shrew in its campaign to produce the entire Shakespeare canon in chronological order, has beefed up Sly’s role with material from A Shrew. This production concludes not with the banquet scene in which Kate delivers her ode to marital obedience (“I am ashamed that women are so simple . . . “), but with an epilogue in which the drunken Sly heads home to try out on his own wife the strategy he’s learned from Petruchio, enlightened for Shakespeare’s time: a sleep-and-food-deprivation brainwashing technique that was decidedly gentler than the usual beating. But the added Sly dialogue brings nothing much new to this familiar play. Far more unusual is the casting of the aristocrat who arranges for Sly to watch a performance of The Shrew by a band of itinerant actors. This character, usually a Lord, is here a Lady–only she’s no lady. As played by Teri Clark, she’s a crop-wielding dominatrix clad in hunting boots and black lingerie, which gives a rather different meaning to her invitation to one of the traveling players to “stay with me tonight.” It also might cast new light on the story of Kate’s transformation from shrewishness to submissiveness.

But the mostly young members of Shakespeare’s Herd miss this opportunity–and plenty of others. Proudly proclaiming themselves “a company comprised of actor/managers–not a director in sight!” the ensemble seek to bring “simplicity of intent and an improvisational energy” to the text by borrowing from John Russell Brown’s manifesto for a “free” Shakespeare style generated by the actors rather than dictated by a director. The notion might work with more imaginative and physically skilled performers; but this production doesn’t come across as “free,” just underrehearsed and aimless. The line readings are mediocre and dull, the physical comedy is effortful and stilted, the timing is tepid, and the group staging is listless and awkward.

Worst of all, there’s no point of view on the script’s sexual themes. The emotional process by which the shrew is tamed (by love? amusement? just exhaustion?) is never made clear in the interaction between Kristen Hornlien’s bland Kate (incongruously costumed in Elizabethan garb while most everyone else is in modern dress) and Nicholas de Wolff’s pouty postgraduate of a Petruchio. De Wolff’s bungling of Petruchio’s funniest dialogue is among the show’s more annoying features; if only there’d been a director around to say “speak louder” or “face downstage” now and then. And the expansion of Christopher Sly’s role is undermined by the amateurishly stereotyped drunk routine of Frank Payne, a big-guy improv comic in the George Wendt-John Candy-Chris Farley tradition except for one all-important trait: being funny. Maybe the group didn’t read the end of John Russell Brown’s essay “An Alternative Shakespeare”–the part where he says that “the first task is to recruit a talented company.”

A typesetting error muddled my November 11 review of Bother!, Peter Dennis’s one-man show of stories by A.A. Milne. The review should have said that “though a more carefully prepared program might better illuminate Milne’s rich themes–fear of abandonment, the tension between dependency and rebellion–the loose structure gives the evening a gentle spontaneity that suits the material.”