Piven Studio Theatre


Feral Theater Company and Her Majesty’s Players

at Cafe Voltaire

Women in Shakespeare is either a woefully misconceived production or a fresh, innovative student project. Indications point to the latter: it’s produced by the Piven Theatre Workshop, one of the best of its breed, and the emphasis appears to be on developing the actors’ skills in building a character. In a program note director Shira Piven declares: “I wanted . . . to discover our collaborative vision [and] meet the material . . . our sensibilities as women in 1991 . . . inescapably follow us.” Which sounds more like a manifesto for a workshop than an objective for a production with a unified purpose and finished characters.

Women in Shakespeare is composed of scenes from several plays, which are grouped under four headings. Each group is introduced by a full-cast number that may involve music, dance, or a “discussion” of goals. The first segment, “Love Is Merely a Madness,” kicks off with a dry-as-dust lecturer being heckled by the ensemble, who then perform a lively interpretive dance. They finish with a joyous shout of “Here we go!” like emcees of a children’s show. (The children’s show motif is also carried through in the costume of Falstaff, who resembles nothing so much as a burlap pumpkin.) “Why, Shall We Turn to Men?” is preceded by a sketch in an improv-comedy style: a support group of cross-dressing heroines from Shakespeare share their experiences. “Hi,” says one, “I’m Viola and I’ve been a eunuch for three months–but only out of necessity.”

Many scenes show considerable imagination. In the soliloquy taken from the end of Act IV in Romeo and Juliet, the heroine is literally of two minds–two actresses argue the wisdom of Friar Laurence’s plan for elopement. Another clever idea informs the staging of the scene at the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Hermia discloses her elopement plans to her best friend Helena in the form of confidences between two teenagers in front of the mirror in the little girls’ room. Probably the most experimental bit is a rendition of Ophelia’s mad scene from Hamlet in which the actress is flanked by a silent waiflike creature, identified in the program as Ophelia’s Madness, who mimes the subtext of the spoken lines. The pacing of the quarrel between Falstaff and the tavern hostess, with a drum punctuating the verbal sparring in the manner of stand-up comedy, also demonstrates a novel approach to familiar material.

These are some of the things Women in Shakespeare does, but unfortunately there are many more things it doesn’t do.

The actresses make almost no effort to get outside themselves and into the characters. Occasionally someone plays a male character, but no one attempts to mimic male speech or movement. (The male costumes could have come straight from the pages of an I. Magnin catalog, just as the female costumes are pure Laura Ashley, frothing with lace ruffles and velvet swags.) When playing a female character, no one speaks in any voice but her own. Though one actress attempts a New Jersey accent for Helena, she cannot overcome her own cultivated speech patterns. When another actress, playing Juliet’s old nurse, sits with her knees spread wide apart, she does so in a broad, hoydenish manner designed to dispel any notion that she sits that way habitually. Granted, hopping from one scene to another does not give an actor much time to establish a three-dimensional character, but the way the characters here are subsumed by the players’ personalities cannot help but leave the impression that all of Shakespeare’s female creations were young, energetic, modern-thinking, poised, well-bred ladies who never raised their girlishly treble voices, never struck an ungraceful pose, and never allowed an unbecoming expression to cross their faces. (Significantly, ingenue roles dominate the evening’s selections–such viragos as Lady Macbeth and Kate the shrew are conspicuously absent.)

There are exceptions, of course. Melanie Hoopes, playing a soldier in Coriolanus, is not afraid to screw up her face in a grimace from time to time, and she delivers an occasional full-throated shout to give spirit to an otherwise anemic Juliet. Teri Clark seems rather subdued for an alumnus of Torso Theatre’s Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, but she lends some much-needed humor to the “English lesson” scene from Henry V (and speaks damn good French as well). The stately Adele Robbins plays her operatic voice like a virtuoso, but tends to rely too heavily on vocal rather than verbal interpretation. Indeed, Women in Shakespeare shows a general disregard for the text–the Bard’s words are treated as little more than a clothesline upon which to hang the actor’s inventions. The audience is assumed to be already familiar with the selections and their contexts, but the actresses take great care to distinguish the women of the 16th century from women today–one of the transvestite females tells her group, “When I became a man, I did something no woman could have done in Shakespeare’s time.” Is this Portia the character speaking, or Kate Churchill the actress?

And does it really matter? The intended beneficiaries of a workshop production are not the spectators but the participants; all of these appear to have gotten much fun and valuable experience out of this performance. From an audience point of view, however, the proceedings too often call to mind the March sisters’ Christmas play in Little Women–charming to be sure, but not to be taken seriously.

It’s not news that theater space in Chicago is at a premium these days. And that means that performance time is also precious. Witness the proliferation of late-night shows, and if this trend continues, perhaps more and more performances will be slotted into the time before the main curtain. The anthology of one-acts tucked snugly into the period preceding the featured show at Cafe Voltaire on Sunday evenings offers not one but three plays in just over an hour.

The first, performed by Her Majesty’s Players, is Lunch Before Harrods. This vignette by Anne Godden- Segard depicts a pair of dowagers involuntarily sharing a table with a young couple in a London restaurant; the conversations among the four become entangled as a territorial battle ensues. Directed by Suzanne E. Hannon, the five-person cast delivers hilarious poker-faced performances–Theatre Building publicist Kim Swinton in particular, as an obnoxious Coca-Cola-swilling American.

The Feral Theater Company presents the other two plays, both by Lisa Dillman (whose Years Ago won much praise at last summer’s Off-Off-Loop Theatre Festival). Cabron begins with a Mexican beggar shouting that epithet at a man (literally the word means “goat,” but it carries many connotations, none flattering). Because the receiver of this emasculating insult is an American tourist, however, he doesn’t take the usual bloody revenge. His response is to puzzle over the meaning of this native expression, while his wife cheerfully concurs with every definition that comes up. “You are the kind of man that birds shit on,” she says amiably as her spouse cleans off his head with one of many Handi Wipes he carries for just that purpose, later discarding it in a large plastic bag his wife carries for just that purpose.

Homeless is longer than Cabron and takes a more serious look at the tensions between those who have and those who have not. Marla and Bobbs live with the latter’s father, who’s only 66 but well down the road of senility. At first the old man’s presence is only a minor annoyance–his son insists on treating him as if he were still the hale and hearty paterfamilias of times past, and his daughter-in-law graciously cuts his meat for him, buys him crayons and paper, and helps him to the bathroom. As the old man’s condition worsens, she changes his diapers and spoon-feeds him at the table, but soon signs of strain begin to surface. “I’m really afraid he’s not going to die,” she confesses. “It’s like having a big baby around all the time.” Bobbs begins to worry about leaving his wife in the company of a still strong and able-bodied child-man whose thoughts sometimes turn to the more pleasant memories of his youth and the whores in the Traverse City taverns. Juxtaposed with this situation are the increasing numbers of homeless people in the neighborhood, a nuisance that compounds the couple’s sense of guilt and failure. Intermingled with their guilt is the lurking fear that they themselves are only a step or two away from the state of these derelict hulks–a fear that paralyzes them as thoroughly as spiritual or economic destitution.

Cabron and Homeless take no sides and point no fingers, but neither do they offer any answers. Wisely director Josette Di Carlo chooses not to provide them either. Her actors–Marti Hale and Dennis Hamel, playing both couples, and William Doyle as the old man–deliver delicately balanced performances that convey with touching and maddening accuracy the mix of good and bad in modern human beings.