So, why doesn’t Shakespeare excite anyone anymore? And, what would it take for Shakespeare to garner the same level of hype as Star Wars or Harry Potter?
These are the central questions of FEAR: a comedy? about performing Shakespeare, written and directed by Kathleen Akerley and produced by Longacre Lea.
Walking in to the Callan Theatre at Catholic University, you might think that perhaps you have walked into the wrong space. The stage has been set to look like a theatre between performances: scenery flats are laid against the wall so we see their less glamorous backs, a scaffold sits just offstage, a drop cloth covers the floor, and a table and mismatched chairs are set out for rehearsal.
This energetic, meta-theatrical production brings the rehearsal room to the stage. When the lights come up, so do the theatre’s work lights, bathing the entire space in florescent light. There is no hiding in the traditional dark, removed comfort we’ve come to expect as an audience. We are instead thrust right into the first rehearsal of struggling theatre company 38th Pie’s newest project. A donor has presented a challenge: she will back a workshop and production process to explore how to make Shakespeare more exciting. She says that too often seeing a Shakespeare production is like going to grandma’s house, familiar and comforting, but lacking any real excitement. So, the seven company members will each propose a potentially more exciting production of a Shakespeare play and use rehearsal to explore each concept. They will then decide whose proposal gets a full production.
The company members bring in everything from a high-concept version of Hamlet set in a mental hospital to a Hamlet/Dune mash up. Writer/Director Akerley sticks to the more familiar Macbeth and Hamlet as the most-oft referenced plays, but even as someone with moderate Shakespeare experience, I admit I found it a tad challenging to pick up on all of the references.
Much like other “backstage comedies” such as Noises Off or the TV series Slings and Arrows, the play has many funny moments with plenty of inside jokes for the avid Shakespeare fan and average theatregoer alike.
But it also has a deeper heart. As a theatre artist myself, I know that often, the most interesting discussions happen in the rehearsal room between actors, directors, and designers, and are never fully shared with the audience except through the richness of the final production. FEAR brings these conversations to the forefront, offering fascinating debates on Shakespeare’s work: why we continue to produce it, its inherent problems of sexism and unrealistic plot twists, why we feel that we must make it something it’s not in order to reach audiences today, and much more. The play also asks larger questions about the nature of art and the rights and responsibilities of artists to one another. There is plenty to mull over after leaving the theatre.
My only criticism is that, at three hours, the play went on too long. Act Two felt more unfocused, as we watch the realized performances of each concept, interspersed with more discussions on Shakespeare and art. There is even a visit from William Shakespeare himself as we come to the winding conclusion that all of the company members’ concepts created interesting productions, and that there is no one right choice when it comes to making Shakespeare enthralling. And perhaps, relaxing our intense, religious-like reverence for the text is the key.
FEAR: a comedy? about performing Shakespeare
closes September 4, 2016
Details and tickets
The seemingly simple set design by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden is fabulous, giving us a nice surprise in the switch from rehearsal to performance, all expertly lit by John Burkland. The sound design by Neil McFadden sculpts and supports the action well, giving each concept performance a world of its own. Gail Stewart Beach’s streamlined costumes further support the uniqueness of each presentation.
The acting is superb, with each member of the ensemble bringing a key part to the greater whole. Michael Glenn particularly shines as famous Shakespearean actor Van who longs to work on something else, and Tom Carman brings a deft nuance to actor-turned-stage manager Henry. Jennifer J. Hopkins and Vince Eisenson have a subtle yet charged connection as actors Lissa and Nick. Séamus Miller and Ashley DeMain bring the humor in their easy banter as Timothy and JT, the administrative backbone of 38th Pie. Matthew Alan Ward is convincing as the over-wrought, nervous young actor Aiden, and Amal Saade plays the benevolent donor Penelope with grace and sweetness.
FEAR is a fun afternoon out that will challenge your perceptions of Shakespeare and theatre and leave you thinking long after the show. It is, in the words of Shakespeare during his visit to 38th Pie, “a profound delight.”
FEAR: a comedy? about performing Shakespeare. Written and Directed by Kathleen Akerley. Featuring: Tom Carman, Vince Eisenson, Ashley DeMain, Michael Glenn, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Seamus Miller, Amal Saade, and Matthew Alan Ward. Costume Design: Gail Stewart Beach. Lighting Design: John Burkland. Set Design: Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden. Sound Design: Neil McFadden. Fight Choreography: Matthew Alan Ward. Stage Manager/Properties Design: Solomon HaileSelassie. Assistant Director: Jeanne Dillon-Williams. Technical Director: Mark J. Wujcik. Weapons by Preferred Arms . Produced by Longace Lea. Reviewed by Sarah Scafidi.