SHAKESPEARE'S GREATEST HITS II
at the Royal George Theatre
A few weeks ago Barbara Gaines, artistic director of Shakespeare Repertory, was quoted as saying she could barely bring herself to read Shakespeare--at least not without gobbling M & M's for energy. As she put it, "It's so tedious to read." But, she continued, onstage the words come to life and spin their spells. (With a little help from the right director, of course.)
Gaines is dead wrong about reading Shakespeare; he's as rewarding to the literate as he is to the merely hearing. But if Gaines's colossal misreading of Shakespeare's powers is what allows her to pump up the volume so high that new and younger audiences are sold on Shakespeare, if it inspires her to produce a Cymbeline like her 1989 stunner or Shakespeare's Greatest Hits II, which is sure to engage young and youthful audiences--well, let the lie be.
Like its rock 'n' roll Royal George predecessor, Shakespeare's Greatest Hits II subscribes to the MTV school of pounding passion--minus the frenetic camera angles and jump cuts. These nine scenes are bridged by pop classics like Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and clever segues (written by Kate Buckley). Of course what works best for a theater full of restless teens is to make sure the emotions erupt strongly enough to pull the words along. At the performance I saw, the kids barely uttered a peep. (They didn't laugh much either--maybe their teachers did a number on them.)
However broadly acted, this dramatic sampler (not all of its selections "hits"--Titus Andronicus for one) testifies to the enduring range of the supreme chronicler of all things human. The scenes are especially well suited to proto-adults. When Juliet (Susan Hart) is bullied by her parents (Leslie Holland and a cantankerous Fredric Stone) into marrying against her will, the nagging is sure to strike lots of chords.
Racism (which is of course more than a teen trouble) is tackled head-on in Shylock's powerful defense of his humanity. To add to the indictment, he's played by an African American actor, with Aretha Franklin belting out "Respect" as soon as the scene is over. (Michael Torrey could make Shylock's speech even bigger, and thereby make the case stronger too.) The endless teen debate between virginity and popularity comes up in the teasing raillery of a scene from All's Well That Ends Well between Helena (Hart) and Parolles (Stone), here aerobics partners who sublimate their urges in push-ups. (It ends with M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This.")
Mistaken identities fuel love's bittersweet confusions in As You Like It. Hart is convincing as the shepherdess Phoebe, who impulsively uses her suitor (a lovesick yokel hilariously played by Henry Godinez) as a go-between to Buckley's disdainful Rosalind, disguised as a man. (The show's biggest laugh came when Rosalind told Phoebe, "Sell where you can; you are not for all markets.")
Some of these episodes are definitely for all markets, not just teenagers. The ghost scene in Hamlet is appropriately Halloweenlike, with flashlights cutting through the dark and giant puppets portraying the quick-moving ghost; its musical signature is the theme from Ghostbusters. In the Titus Andronicus section a ferocious sword fight leads to Aaron's rescue of his bastard baby brother (Torrey feelingly portrays Aaron's loyalty).
In the most curious transformation, the melodrama of Richard II is reduced to a blend of sitcom, soap, and camp. In the show's most unexpectedly funny scene, the family quarrel between Richard and his relatives is played with vaudeville timing and huge slices of ham. Purists may not enjoy the deflation, but it's a take on Richard II to set you thinking about the rest of the play. The errant courtship scene in Twelfth Night, here between Holland's overly flirtatious Olivia and Buckley's competent Viola in disguise, still intrigues audiences with its fascinating androgyny.
The most touching part of the show was the unscripted stuff--the brief question-and-answer session afterward hosted by the six actors. It hit me that Shakespeare's speeches, which I've heard over and over, were first-time events for these kids--who may go on to hear them again and again, but never like the first time.
The first question the kids came up with was a tribute to Shakespeare; a boy wanted to know how The Merchant of Venice ended. (The answer he got was less than satisfactory--these kids would have loved to hear about the requirement of taking a pound of flesh but no blood.) Equally touching was "Are these the exact words Shakespeare wrote down?" And "Does making it modern change the mood?" to which Fredric Stone wisely answered, "Yes, but not the meaning."
If there are fewer moments of magic here than I recall from Shakespeare's Greatest Hits, that's the peril of a sequel: despite illustrious material, Hits II self-consciously tries to recapture a once-fresh formula. The remaining asset is the fact that it doesn't preach to the converted; would-be adults as well as teens who think the Bard is boring on the page should check it out. Though Gaines's attempt to rescue Shakespeare from the study is arrogant and unnecessary, her show can turn kids on to the master of their language. They may end up hooked on theater and the written word. They may even read Shakespeare without the M & M's.