Wherefore Art Thou, Shakespeare?

I had a friendly e-mail from Wes Martin the other day. Normally, theater people only write to tell me that I'm profoundly fucked up and need to be fired, but Wes, who's the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre, was writing to tell me how much he admires theater critics and to plead with me to review his new show so that his theater company won't go belly up.

I wrote back and told Wes that theater people should never, under any circumstances, tell drama critics that they admire us, even if they're lying. Theater critics already struggle with bloated egos, and fan letters only make it worse. I also told Wes that the only thing more annoying than a groveling artistic director is having to sit through what is politely referred to as "classical theater," a term used to describe plays written hundreds of years ago that today require a syllabus to comprehend.

Like most of the local companies devoted to the works of Old Will, the Shakespeare Theatre doesn't do all that much Shakespeare. In fact, of the three shows presented by the Shakespeare Theatre this season, only one was written by the man himself. Wes was writing to ask me to review Marat/Sade (see review, above). Marat/Sade was not written by Shakespeare. It's a classical piece, a commentary on the French Revolution told in verse and song, and is therefore a show that almost no one wants to see, so it might as well be Shakespeare. But it isn't. And if you're going to call yourself the Shakespeare Theatre, you'd darn well better do some Shakespeare.

The nice people at the Shakespeare Theatre might argue that their mission is to do classical theater, and not just works by the Bard, which sounds like so much hooey when "Shakespeare" appears in the name of your company. They'd do better to argue that most of the local companies who call themselves "Shakespeare theaters" have set the bar by frequently producing musicals and comedies written in the 20th century.

Southwest Shakespeare, which this year is actually living up to its name by producing only Shakespearean plays, has in the past brought us West Side Story, Oliver!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and (horrors!) Our Town, a show that's popular with Shakespeare companies for some reason -- Shakespeare Sedona did it a couple years ago, too. Shakespeare Sedona doesn't appear to be doing anything at all these days, by Shakespeare or anybody else; its Web site still shows the schedule from two seasons ago. But I'm guessing that, once it does announce a season, it'll include a musical comedy or two. Maybe something by Neil Simon.

These guys could take a cue from Actors' Renaissance Theatre, a classical company that ironically does more Shakespeare than the local troupes that are named for him. This year ART is even doing a Shakespeare festival in the spring, which would be more impressive if it wasn't including The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a comedy written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield.

The upshot is that Shakespeare barely draws flies, and so troupes devoted to his work must include contemporary musical comedies on their schedules in order to stay afloat. The thinking seems to be that a season ticket holder to, say, the Shakespeare Theatre will part with his dough as long as he doesn't have to sit through much Shakespeare. Which makes about as much sense as devoting your theater company to producing the works of one playwright who almost nobody wants to see anymore, and whose work you therefore can't afford to produce.


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