Much Ado About Shakespeare

Monday, February 20, 2012

Emily Wilhoit (Beatrice) and Craig Trow (Benedick)

CHARLESTON NEEDS more Shakespearean theatre, so let’s hope that newcomer Holy City Shakespeare (HCS) is here to stay.

Under founder and artistic director Laura Rose, HCS premiered this past weekend at the Sottile Theatre in a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” and has plans to do “Hamlet” in the Fall. Laura and her husband, managing director Mark Poremba, have extensive theatre experience and are keen to build a top-notch ensemble to feature the works of Shakespeare.

Their first staging showed promise with an eager cast and some standout performances, but the acoustics unfortunately posed serious challenges due to the Sottile’s wide, deep stage and its long, narrow hall which is ill suited to drama. Whenever the actors turned even slightly away from the audience, it was difficult to hear, and the muffled acoustics worsened the effect—which is especially detrimental to Shakespeare where each word is critical to understanding the plot and gleaning all the nuances of his characters.

Shakespeare is so demanding partly because his spoken word cannot stray off course without diminishing his psychological intent. Shakespeare was a wordsmith par excellence and, simply put, if the audience cannot grasp everything that is said, his plays becomes a verbal blur—an exercise in frustration.

Brendan Kelly (Don John) and Mark Poremba (Don Pedro)

Fortunately, a strong outing by the female lead—Emily Wilhoit as Beatrice—kept the thread of the story going. Emily has a strong stage presence, she projected well in the cavernous set, and her character was compelling. Brendan Kelly as Don John was also convincingly wicked in spite of his limited lines. Robbie Thomas, always a good sport in whatever role he is cast, maintained Shakespeare’s steady drum beat of villainous humor in the role of Borachio. And Mark Gorman as Leonato lent needed gravitas to the cast.

This new company certainly deserves our attention and support (in fact, this was the only play I have been to where virtually all the other companies in town were in attendance—a nice gesture). Nevertheless, in the spirit of trying to give an unvarnished account of the production, I would be remiss not to acknowledge some noticeable weak points.

For instance, as much as it has become fashionable to set Shakespeare’s plays in modern times—in this case in the 1940s in “Messina” South Carolina—the context came off as contrived and did little to the story other than give the actors permission to feel free in their normal or affected southern accents. The result felt like Shakespeare dumbed down for a provincial southern audience, which weakened the integrity and hence the believability of the characters.

Robbie Thomas as Borachio

This does not mean that Americans need to feign English accents to pull off Shakespeare. On the contrary, as long as they articulate and project (and in general slow down), Shakespeare can be as powerful and magical as it is on the London stage. The more purity, integrity, and authenticity you grant him, regardless of accent, the more effective his plays are—which is what I trust we will get in the HCS’s Fall production of “Hamlet.”

Because the delivery of Shakespeare’s language is so hard to master, two things tend to happen—which can occur in any playwright’s works, though they somehow seem more obvious in Shakespeare. One is for the actors to mask their lines with a lot of gestures, instead of letting their gestures defer to deeply felt speech. The other is for actors to exaggerate the humor, sometimes to the point of silliness—which comes off as poor acting.

All this said, there is nothing I admire more than an actor (not to mention director) who has the discipline, stamina, and courage to tackle Shakespeare. His words flow naturally, yet cannot be spoken hurriedly; his actors are noble and strong, yet human and fallible; his plays are often monumental, yet his scenes are usually intimate; he demands the utmost seriousness, yet his plays are laced with humor; his plots are simple, yet managing their action onstage is complex—and there is more. On top of it all, he was a master of human psychology: its intricate workings, its vagaries, and perhaps especially its deceptions.

Mark Gorman (Leonato) and Emily McKay (Hero)

But isn’t this a list of why Shakespeare is revered by actors and appreciated by audiences? And isn’t Charleston’s art scene—which continues to improve and expand—deserving of this best in classical theatre? I say, definitively, yes. (I also think this city would be a choice venue for an annual Shakespeare festival to rival those in Alabama, Oregon, and Massachusetts.)

So here’s to welcoming Holy City Shakespeare and supporting them as they pursue their admirable goal of “powerful and entertaining theatre.” I am already looking forward to re-reading and readying myself for “Hamlet.”

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
~ Johann Goethe