Center Theater


Talisman Theatre

Spinoza called ambition a “species of madness.” In his early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona and his late tragedy Macbeth, William Shakespeare dramatized the maddening effects of ambition upon two men who suddenly become discontented with the satisfactory circumstances of their lives. Both plays are currently being performed by small off-Loop theater companies whose own ambitions to grapple with the Bard are less than entirely successful. Still, their productions cast interesting new light upon the enduring texts.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written around 1592, tells of two young friends, Valentine and Proteus, whose relationship is threatened when Proteus becomes infatuated with Valentine’s girlfriend Silvia. Proteus schemes to get Valentine out of the way by revealing to Silvia’s father, the Duke of Milan, Valentine and Silvia’s plans to elope. The Duke banishes Valentine, leaving the field open to Proteus–or so Proteus thinks, for he has failed to reckon with Silvia and Valentine’s fidelity to each other. Meanwhile, Julia, whom Proteus had loved until he became dazzled by Silvia, disguises herself as a boy to spy on the fickle Proteus, whose treachery is finally revealed. Confronted by those he has done wrong, Proteus repents his misdeeds and is happily restored to the friendship of Valentine and the love of Julia.

The play, with its abrupt and too- convenient resolution, is traditionally dismissed as a youthful failure. Yet the very callowness of its characters makes them intriguing, if one sees them as fools who learn from their mistakes. Proteus’s behavior pretty much marks him as a bastard; obsessed with a sudden, impetuous ambition to possess Silvia, he sells out not only his friend but friendship itself, the value that has heretofore guided his whole life. Yet Proteus is the hero of the play. His shallow emotions and shifty actions provide the story’s considerable intrigue; the audience is hooked by the question of just how far this shit will go and how much he’ll get away with. And the all-is-forgiven denouement suggests the resilience of youth, like a furious feud between two teenagers that is forgotten after a good night’s sleep.

Dan LaMorte and Kathy Scambiatterra, directors of the Center Theater’s production, emphasize Proteus’s creepy appeal in their unorthodox casting of R.J. Coleman in the role. Coleman’s Proteus wears baggy breeches in an obvious effort to hide his skinny legs, gawkily engages in an amateurish bout of wrestling with his buddy, or sexlessly kisses his still adored Julia on the forehead while she clearly longs for something more; he’s easily dominated by his bossy mother and blandly calculating as he schemes to snare Silvia (who’s more an object to be acquired than a woman to be desired). He’s an awkward ass ill fitted to a heroic age. What, you wonder, could the faithful Julia–or the robust and romantic Valentine, for that matter–ever see in a guy like this?

A certain line of dialogue suggests the answer: “From our infancy,” says Valentine of his relationship with Proteus, “we have conversed and spent our hours together.” Here, then, is the story of two sheltered, privileged, emotionally immature adolescents whose lifelong friendship has never been challenged until now; when Proteus gets his first glimpse of Silvia–a “celestial sun” in contrast to the mere “twinkling star” he’s been used to seeing in Julia–he is easily drawn to treachery, since he’s never had to weigh the consequences of his actions. He takes Valentine’s loyalty and Julia’s adoration, and his own reciprocation of those feelings, for granted, and only comes to value them when he sees the real hurt he has caused.

Except for Coleman’s interestingly off-type Proteus and the casting of a gang of bandits as women rather than men, the play is done in a fairly standard Shakespearean style that, under LaMorte and Scambiatterra’s generally meandering direction, is generally adequate but rarely more than that (and in the case of David Clements’s fight staging, decidedly less). John Mossman is a beach-boyish Valentine, handsome but inarticulate in a role that contains a goodly share of lyrical poetry. Robin Witt is a likable, girlish Julia, Shawna Franks an adolescently overripe Silvia. The most entertaining support comes from Champ Clark as the clown Launce, sweet and slow-witted as he complains of having to take care of his incontinent dog Crab; a certain Mr. Scruggs brings down the house as Crab, as he passes his slow, sad canine gaze over the audience in seemingly long-suffering response to his master’s voice.

Lynn Sandberg’s richly colored period costumes stand out boldly against the delicately washed-out shadings of Richard Mahaney’s courtyard setting and Chris Phillips’s lighting; Joe Cerqua’s lightly mocking synthesizer score reflects the antiromantic tone Center Theater has taken with this romantic piece.

Like Proteus, the warlord Macbeth flouts morality and good sense when he becomes obsessed with a goal–possessing the throne of Scotland that has been promised him by three witches on a heath. For Mark Hardiman, artistic director of the tiny Talisman Theatre in Wicker Park, Macbeth is a play about magic, in which dark spells unleash the “primitive aspects” of the hero’s nature.

Accordingly, Hardiman’s staging is filled with the trappings of occult ritual. Bells clang, sticks beat rhythmically, and the eight-person ensemble relentlessly chant a deep, resonant “om” during almost every scene change. Firelight casts spooky shadows across the small stage; the actors crouch on the edges of the playing area, their heads covered by hoods, when they’re not portraying one of some 30 characters.

But whether Hardiman’s emphasis on atmosphere distracted him from the acting, or whether he uses atmosphere to distract the audience from his company’s limitations, this Macbeth could do with less “om” and more oomph. The taut text of this relatively short tragedy is densely packed with images of life and death, but the actors convey little of the script’s power. It’s not just a matter of articulation–though when the first witch asks her sisters when they three shall meet “agin” in a nasal Chicago accent, it undercuts all the mystery suggested in Michael Johannsen’s circle-of-stones set, Jeffrey Childs’s moody lighting, and Dawn DeWitt’s found-furs-and-raffish-rags costumes. It’s a question of inner energy; there’s no edge of fury in the words these primal, passionate people say. Also, the play’s contrasts between light and dark (reason and madness, love and hate, life and death) are smothered in the monotonous murkiness of Hardiman’s visual concept.

Robert A. Mullen comes closest to playing at the level the play requires–his Macduff is a potent figure of righteous anger as he stalks the man who slaughtered his family–and Mary Hatch’s girlish Lady Macbeth finds a remarkable depth of anguish in her nightwalking scene. As Macbeth, certified stage combatant Dean R. Schmitt really rises to the occasion only in the climactic sword fight; of him it can be said, as it is of the thane of Cawdor in the play, that nothing in his stage life becomes him like the leaving it.