Bingo | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Single Action Theatre Company

at Greenview Arts Center

Art has very practical consequences. Most "cultural appreciation" ignores this and is no more relevant than a game of "Bingo," and less honest.--Edward Bond

British playwright Edward Bond is a rigid, humorless ideologue. Though William Shakespeare wrote plays more powerful than life, Bond naively expects the man to be as complete as his creations--as compassionate as Prospero, as furious at hypocrisy as Hamlet, as enraged at poverty as broken Lear. Woe to him for being merely human.

In the 1973 Bingo, cryptically subtitled Scenes of Money & Death, Bond imagines, without relying on fact, the bard six months before his death, in 1616. Forlornly haunting the garden of New Place, his imposing Stratford home, he is no contented country gentleman enjoying the fruits of a full career. Mired in a funk, he sits indifferent to starving, even hanged, peasants, on whose rent he lives, as well as to his demented, mistreated wife and his practical daughter Judith, who despises him for ignoring the world. "Life doesn't seem to touch you," she says, but he rejects her for such "banalities."

Indifferent to the consequences, Shakespeare protects his income by colluding with the local gentry to enclose Stratford's 400 acres of common fields, land used to feed the town's many poor (700 out of 2,000 residents), and using it to graze sheep rather than grow corn. (Shakespeare's participation in this theft is only speculation.)

In what Bond must consider a cunning deflation, he frames each bard-bashing scene with voice-overs from Shakespeare's eloquent plays. Gotcha, Bond seems to chuckle--as if every action a writer takes should be judged by the lines he pens.

Despite the massive suffering around him, Bond's Shakespeare (certainly no one else's) can do no more than scratch his broad brow and mouth inanities like "What is the right question?" Or drink to oblivion with a contentedly sinful Ben Jonson. Or mutter un-Shakespearean remarks: "Every writer writes in another man's blood." "They were whipped and hanged so I could be free." "I could have done so much." "To have usurped the place of God, and lied." "If I wasn't dead I would kill myself." (If you go by Bond's script, the bard gave all his good lines to his characters.) In a breathless soliloquy he links bearbaiting to human cruelty, and later he sits in the snow to provide a metaphor for his sterility.

Bond's leftist indignation at the unremarkable fact that Shakespeare was not the sum of his lines is as pathetic as the pieties of conservative Victorians who glibly assumed only good people could write moral works. But however wrongheaded its assumptions, Bingo might still intrigue if Bond had discovered some conflict in the situation. Of course that's impossible with a protagonist who's a beaten man before we meet him, passive to the point of paralysis and depressed to the point of suicide. And no antagonist offers an alternative to the bard's enervation: the play just dumps on Shakespeare until it kills him off.

Whatever drew the Single Action Theatre Company to this cold script, they haven't thawed it. Robert Koon's staging surrounds Shakespeare with the bustle of a peasants' revolt, but Chuck Coyl's introverted and alienated portrait of a perversely inarticulate bard drags everything down with it. It takes energy to convey this much repression; sadly, Coyl was coached to impersonate a black hole (though he does look a lot like Shakespeare's bust).

There are scant diversions: Rob Stormont's heartily unrepentant Ben Jonson, Sarah Rudinoff's loud Judith, John Young's martyred agrarian reformer, Tim Philbin's venal landowner, who, like The Cherry Orchard's Lopakhin, fills a moral void with greed. But no actor miracles will fill Bond's void. Stay home and read King Lear.

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