Chicago Shakespeare Company

at the Saint Ignatius Auditorium

I sat front row center. I almost never do that, but when we took our seats there were only two other people in the audience, and what with the open seating, and plenty of it, what the hell. Later, several more people showed up, and eventually the audience outnumbered the cast. But, with all those empty seats behind me, I thought it might be easier to imagine Shakespeare’s work as vital and popular theater. By intermission I’d given up hope, and there were still two acts to go.

I bought two cups of coffee and admired the woodwork in the vestibule of the auditorium.

At the opening of act four I was overcome by melancholy. I had nothing to be thankful for. Except perhaps that the action of the play had skipped from Sicilia to Bohemia, which meant that at least for a while I didn’t have to listen to Christopher Donahue (as Leontes)–the best of the cast so far–emphasize every bloody line. I hunkered down in my seat. Even my favorite stage direction of all time–“Exit, pursued by a bear”–had been unimpressively handled in the previous act. Alas, perhaps bringing Shakespeare to life was hopeless after all. Maybe these old plays, particularly the comedies, were more footnotes than footlights, and that’s all there was to it. And, as Leontes says in act one, “Physic for’t there’s none.”

It was at this point that a ladder was thrown up from the orchestra pit, and I realized that Autolycus, the rogue and fool, was making his entrance, singing one of those hey-ho-derry-do songs. At first, I couldn’t even bear to look. I hate Shakespeare’s fools. They aren’t funny. They’re never funny. They make me want to buy an Uzi. But something made me look up, and soon I was sitting up and laughing, and the play had come alive.

Autolycus was played by Tom Willmorth, the sole redeeming artist in this production. Willmorth is a genuine comedian and a four-star fool. By the time that he finished his introduction to the audience, I was won over. And it was soon after that that he picked the pocket of the Clown–a slick piece of comic business–followed up with a bit of fast talking, stashing the purse in his shirt, simultaneously trying to prevent the bumpkin from discovering the loss while making his getaway, lying all the time, and professing himself a beggar who had been robbed by a scoundrel named Autolycus. And it was such a nervous and fugitive characterization that it suddenly occurred to me that Shakespeare could create more than mouthpieces, but that it took an actor to help him out. By the time Willmorth made his exit, the actor sharing the scene, Steve Juergens, who was slightly reminiscent of Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, looked like a pretty good actor himself.

Then the play deflated again as Perdita and Florizel, the young lovers, reproduced the hot-blooded guy/spunky gal routine. Then the shepherds and shepherdesses engaged in rustic folk dances while a bawd banged on a tambourine and I mentally thumbed through the ads in Soldier of Fortune.

Fortunately Autolycus returned, in the guise of a peddler selling sheet music to preposterous ballads–just the thing to enliven a sheep-shearing festival. But inwardly I was recoiling–prithee, mercy, no more folk songs. Again I was astounded, as I’d always suffered through those embarrassing musical interludes and wondered how actors could abase themselves to perform them. Yet Willmorth’s song and dance to “Two Maids Wooing a Man” was the silliest thing I’d seen since the interpretive dance version of “The Murder of Gonzago” from the Atlanta production of Hamlet, the Musical. Well done! And not only that, Willmorth’s clowning didn’t resort to shameless travesty, but was consistent with what Shakespeare seems to have had in mind for the character. This in itself was a revelation to me, since I had long ago concluded that Elizabethans had the sense of humor of a convention of smut-minded philologists.

Worth the price of admission? I believe so. Worth sitting through the first three acts? Well, that’s a different matter. The rest of this show–the acting, the staging, even the costumes–constitutes a strong explanation as to why most people wouldn’t go see Shakespeare if you held an Uzi to their heads. No amount of editing, and there has been a lot here, can relieve the tedium of Shakespeare when he’s squeezed out with the uninspired, methodical banality of a Play-Doh factory. I don’t want to go into it.

You can dress him up in funny clothes, and you can prance him around on tiptoes with a hey-derry-ho, but without real actors Shakespeare is road meat. Flat, fossilized, and not prone to make it to the other side of the road. It was a revelation to me, and a physic or whatever, to be treated to Willmorth’s performance. Shakespeare is too much of words, and few actors find the action, character, and soul underneath. Willmorth does. And it’s a matter of moments, like when Autolycus passes himself off as a courtier, perched with his palm turned up, stretched awkwardly behind him, so as to solicit a little gold that it would be beneath him to accept. This Autolycus is truly “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles,” and a challenge to the museum guards of display-case Shakespeare.