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Elizabethan Roller Coaster



Cardenio, or the Second Maiden's Tragedy

Next Theatre Company

Life Mask, the Exaggerated Memoirs of a Chicago Actor

Next Theatre Company

By Justin Hayford

A few years ago, Shakespeare scholar Charles Hamilton convinced himself he'd hit pay dirt. Poking around the British Museum Library, he came across the manuscript of a play called The Second Maiden's Tragedy, which parliament had purchased in 1807 as part of the manuscript collection of the first marquis of Lansdowne. It was dated 1611, the year that court censor George Buc gave it its title. Through the centuries, successive owners had added various authors' names to the title page--first Thomas Goffe, then George Chapman, and finally some guy named Will Shakespeare. Not long after landing in the British Museum Library, the manuscript was largely forgotten.

Until 1994, that is, when Hamilton inflicted upon academic circles the world's dullest tome, "proving" in 250 pages that The Second Maiden's Tragedy is in fact the long lost play Cardenio, credited to Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Hamilton examines myriad Elizabethan handwriting samples, compares isolated passages from the text to Shakespeare's other plays, even constructs a table tallying the relative frequency of abbreviations and contractions (was't, t'ot, o'th') in the collaborative works of Beaumont and Fletcher versus Shakespeare and Fletcher. But despite all the squirrelly theories, Hamilton seems generally unconcerned with the play's merits. Although he includes the full text in his book, he writes in the preface, "Should you be hard-pressed with other tasks and not have the leisure to peruse all of Cardenio, I urge you to read at least scenes two, three, and four in Act IV." Then, apparently, you can get back to the really important work, like counting all the commas in Middleton and Marlowe.

If Hamilton were ever to dust himself off and come out of the stacks, he might see what really matters about Cardenio: its outrageous theatricality. Whoever wrote this shameless crowd pleaser didn't have much on his mind beyond sending the audience into a giddy swoon. A high-octane plot machine, the play is rife with seduction, adultery, revenge, murder, corruption, and necrophilia. The playwright even threw in a tormented ghost, though she doesn't pop up until act four. If you want philosophy, read Hamlet. If you're looking for the Renaissance equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, pick up Cardenio.

Or better yet, check out director Kate Buckley's dynamic production at Next Theatre. She's hit real pay dirt, demonstrating the vitality of this nearly 400-year-old play. Unlike most Chicago directors tackling antiquated verse drama, Buckley dispenses with pretentious posturing, convoluted stylistic embellishments, and adolescent hysterics. Instead she approaches the piece simply and directly, finding rich, human truths in even the most outlandish plot twists.

Paradoxically, she unlocks these truths through a blatantly artificial staging. Joseph P. Tilford's sepulchral set forces all the action downstage, where Buckley's actors begin the play like chess pieces on an oversize board. The unnamed Tyrant marches front and center, his trench-coated henchmen in tow, and announces that he's usurped the kingdom--a moment with all the grotesque comedy of Al Haig's attempt to take control after the Reagan assassination attempt. Then the Tyrant banishes the deposed king, Govianus, from the realm, although he's not allowed to leave until he watches the Tyrant marry Govianus's wife, who has no name except the Lady. When she refuses, the Tyrant revokes Govianus's banishment and imprisons him instead--in a comfortable house with the Lady by his side. Brightness was never a prerequisite for a usurping king.

In this opening scene, the actors speak as much to the audience as to one another. Rarely crossing the stage in a naturalistic manner, they move from pose to pose as though on display. Buckley turns the play into a kind of pageant, with the actors merely filling in for the larger-than-life "historical" characters. In five minutes she makes it clear that we should believe nothing--but enjoy watching the performers' make-believe.

It's a strategy well suited to Cardenio. Almost devoid of ordinary psychological plausibility, it's filled with sudden and complete reversals in temperament, often occasioned by nothing but a well-placed speech or two. For example, when Helvetius--the Lady's father and a lifelong courtier free of conscience--comes to retrieve his daughter from imprisonment for the Tyrant's sexual use, it takes only 41 lines from Govianus to transform him into a pillar of virtue. And as in all of Shakespeare's late romances, the stage world adheres to a kind of fairy-tale logic in which words have almost magical powers.

The play's subplot, set in the household of Govianus's brother Anselmus, follows a less magical but equally implausible logic. Anselmus has decided, for no apparent reason, that he must test the fidelity of his wife (cleverly named the Wife). He sets his servant Votarius to the task of seducing her, a job Votarius tries his best not to accomplish--thereby achieving rapid success. The Wife's servant Leonella finds out, tells her husband, Bellarius, who happens to be Votarius's sworn enemy--for no apparent reason--and everyone ends up killed in a poison-tipped sword fight.

Buckley makes this absurd web of cross-purposes a delight. The plot's screwball-comedy aspect has its own kind of psychological validity. Within the play's exaggerated conventions, the breathless ambivalence of Votarius and the Wife--who engage in several rounds of "I want you, no I don't"--is wholly convincing. And because the actors seem to be performing a comedy routine, it's easier to find an emotional investment in their ridiculous predicament than if they were playing the scenes as serious drama. Something similar happens with the Tyrant-Govianus plot: the actors always acknowledge a comedic undercurrent no matter how tragic matters become. For example, when Govianus and the Lady find themselves surrounded by the Tyrant's soldiers, who have orders to carry her to the Tyrant's bed, the Lady decides she's better off dead. She asks Govianus to kill her, but he gets so worked up he keels over. So she stabs herself, groaning her last just as Govianus wakes up--seemingly from a refreshing nap.

Buckley's comedy isn't the least bit cheap or forced. Throughout the text she discovers and exploits moments like this one, when shortsightedness and bad timing turn noble people into fools. In this production, no one has much perspective; everyone is caught up in a whirlwind plot spinning out of control. Nobody gets a break, a tactic that gives the audience ample opportunity to recognize the timeless, clownish misadventure of human existence.

Buckley couldn't have assembled a cast better attuned to her reading of the play. All 15 actors bring a light touch to the script yet respect the formal constraints of the verse, refusing to mangle it into vernacular doggerel, as so many casts do these days. Buckley's actors do little but stand and speak, never needing to embel-lish or illustrate their words, delivering their lines with candor and directness--which is all an actor needs to do with a text as complete as this. Spearheading the production is artistic director Steve Pickering, who gives his farewell performance with the Next Theatre as the Tyrant. In an ingenious subversion, he plays the character as an unremarkable, unimaginative schmuck who never knows what's going on but does his damnedest to convince everyone he's a threat. Pathetic and bumbling, Pickering's Tyrant is all the more menacing because his impulses are never checked by intelligence.

Only in the last act does Buckley's approach come up a bit short. As the plot goes off the deep end, with the Tyrant stealing the Lady's corpse from her tomb and making love to it under the watchful presence of her ghost, Buckley can't achieve real terror or awe--in part because she starts upping the naturalism of her staging. We're asked to believe in the Tyrant's madness in a conventional sense; Pickering reveals no stylistic distance between himself and his character. And watching the Tyrant's cronies struggle with the crypt's lid as though it were really made of marble compromises the artificiality of everything that's gone before. The final act is enjoyable but comparatively unengaging, as we're left with little artifice to believe in.

On off nights, Next Theatre is presenting William J. Norris's one-man show Life Mask. Subtitled The Exaggerated Memoirs of a Chicago Actor, it recounts stories from Norris's nearly 30 years in "the business," from his early days as an idealistic theater student to his six-year stint with the influential, iconoclastic Organic Theater to his "mature" work with Equity companies around town.

The 75-minute show is thankfully low on acting. Speaking directly to his audience, Norris never manufactures an emotion, never hides behind an invented persona. Structurally the piece seems a bit unfocused, however, as he strings together anecdote after anecdote to no particular end. Although many of his stories are quite funny, particularly those involving disastrous onstage screwups, after 45 minutes or so they become indistinguishable. One hopes Norris might have had more to talk about than blown lines and brilliant improvs after 30 years at his trade.

Norris does try to give the piece a bit of substance now and again, even standing on a soapbox center stage to decry the death of theater by commercialization. But these sections reveal a supposed iconoclast out of touch with the times. Norris spends a lot of time early in the show congratulating himself (although in a disingenuous, self-deprecating way) for his convention-defying work with the Organic, then gets up on his soapbox to berate audience members who don't sit in silence or who--horror of horrors--leave before the show is over. Apparently the only people who can express themselves in the theater are actors; audiences are doomed to conventionality and well-behaved complacency.

Even more troubling, Norris imagines that the experimentalism and artistic daring of 70s off-Loop theater have disappeared. "I'm looking for a company of artists who make work by the artists for the audience," he laments, as though no such company existed here. Has Norris never heard of the Curious Theatre Branch, Theater Oobleck, the Neo-Futurists, or Theater for the Age of Gold? As the most recent Rhino in Winter festival alone showed, there's no shortage of creativity, intelligence, and integrity on the theatrical fringe. The work may not conform to Norris's 30-year-old ideals, but it offers much more food for thought than, say, talking about yourself all evening.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cardenio, or the Second Maiden's Tragedy theater still by Peter Rybolt.

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