Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide



entire contents copyright 1997/1998 by Larry Stark

One Bastard to Another
--- Saturday, 21 March, '98

Fernando J. Paiz
The Shakespeare Ensemble @ MIT
Dear Fernando,
First of all, thank you for inviting this bearded old bastard back, after I trashed the Ensemble's production of KING JOHN last year. And I hope you don't mind my branding you as that Phillip The Bastard you portrayed in that play. An actor, as you ably demonstrate, can be a bastard one year and Thane of Glammis the next, while a critic is always a bastard no matter what he does.

One reason for that is the impersonal objectivity that critics are supposed to maintain. We're asked to compare your work with everything else we've seen --- or to measure it against some Platonic perfect production of the perfect play, if you believe such pompous possibilities. But that vaunted impersonal objectivity means we assume that every group presenting a play has the same objective of artistic excellence in mind, and uses the same means and techniques. We're supposed to know everything about what everyone onstage had in mind from the two hours' traffic on your stage, in competition with the Hovey Players and The New Rep and the Nora and The Other, and even with Quentin and Marisa over at Ye Wilbur, all of you reaching for the same laurel crown of excellence. You may all seek the bubble reputation even in the critic's mouth, but The Shakespeare Ensemble isn't The Hovey Players, and a perfect apple will always fail in competition with all the other oranges.

So, rather than judge your production of The Scottish Play as just another college show --- as I did last year --- I'd rather step back and take a longer look at what makes The Shakespeare Ensemble unique. I mean, for instance, that you're all students at an Institute not widely known for its Humanities studies, so your commitment to The Bard has to be part-time, however commendable, and none of you expect to make a living as Shakespeare scholars or as actors.

The concept of "Ensemble" is important here as well. I note that Thomas Cork, Sarah Cohen, Young E. Kim, and Marketa Valterova as well as yourself are all back on stage again this year, and the entire cast looked like a company of equals all comfortably working together. That gave the big battle sequences vigor and scope. It meant that there were no empty spaces or small roles, and everyone got a shot at center stage. It also meant that simple costumes allowed both for sex-blind casting and for actors re-entering in new roles. That ensemble flavor is both unique and refreshing.

One of the Ensemble's major strengths is pace. There was never a wasted instant between scenes, as quick entrances by new characters changed scenes on that bare stage faster and more totally than any sets could have done. And the lines themselves were rapped out at a brisk pace, whipping the action along toward its conclusion. For The Scottish Play in particular, that put an emphasis on impulse rather than calculation as a major motivation. It made your Thane of Cawdor young, rash, and likely to rush off all in one direction and then all in another, "I'll do't!" following fast on "I'll not fight with thee!" A confident soldier ambitious enough to snatch the crown without quite knowing how to keep it.

The Ensemble last year did a play nobody knows because no one ever does it, and this year the one everyone knows far too well. Given your commitment to simple, direct stageing and the level of technique, I think both were doomed productions. There are no surprises in The Scottish Play for audiences that have known it since high school. I was glad to note that your tyrant, by the conviction in the way you read the lines, actually Believed that Birnum Wood could not come to Dunsinane, but none in the audience was as surprised as he was when it actually did.

Given those odds, your Scottish Play came off feeling like a rushed, surface reading, compared to slower, more introspective productions. I noticed that most of the soliloquys --- not just yours, but everyone's --- were spoken directly to the audience, rather than seeming like conversations with the self. That achieved a certain clarity, but gave the impression that everyone in the play was more or less rushing into action with no deeply felt motivation whatever.

Of course, in any production using untrained actors, the shape of the show depends on what the director asks or demands, and I didn't see much of Tony Simotes' vision in the show. Action went by so fast I rarely saw anyone thinking, which meant that most people looked driven by the lines instead of from any internal convictions or concepts. Other productions have tried to imply with subtext and brooding looks a deep complexity --- such as that in Othello, Lear, or Hamlet --- that simply isn't in the text of The Scottish Play. But just doing it straight is no real solution either, because that leaves nothing for you to hang such lyrical flights of philosophy as the "Tomorrow and tomorrow" speech upon; it's hard to think of the guy who trusts his good right arm because no man of woman born can kill him as even thinking those thoughts, and the text is no help there.

And that is why this bastard took so long to say anything at all about The Ensemble's Scottish Play. It left me with little to talk about. Despite the lusty interplay between your Thane and Jenny James Matta as his Lady, despite the careful broadsword-play, and Young E. Kim's quick transformation from Macduff into his own little son and back again, despite the forceful, direct readings of lines, I saw no shape and felt no surprises. The Ensemble provided a clear, energetic reading of the play, but that was all. And so I hope you'll understand when I say, this bastard can't review this show. You'll have to take this Cricket's Notebook instead.

But I'll be back in April for your night of scenes. And I'll be back next year, if you let me, to see what The Shakespeare Ensemble is up to.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide