Sad Summer Shakespeare

We’ve all seen what I like to call Sad Summer Shakespeares, limp little salads of productions wilted by their naïve enthusiasm and self-important claims of universalism. Mix your fork around in one of these creations too intently, sniff a little too hard, and the dramaturgy, acting, and storytelling reveal themselves as pallid cauliflower, rubbery carrots, and decaying lettuce. Waiter, thanks but no thanks!

The scene of the Sad Summer Shakespeare crime is usually a public park, a civics center, or a geriatric watering hole. “Accessible Shakespeare!” or “Shakespeare for everyone!” is the rallying call of their half-baked director-chefs. Throw together one of those old Bardic standards for The People, they seem to believe, and you’re golden.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this idea – on paper it sounds pretty ideal. (Sometimes it is: the Public’s free Shakespeare in the Park is often a heart-quickening confluence of space, audience, and thought—a Wolfgang Puck of a summer salad, as it were.)

But too often easy-going, bleeding-heart howls of “it’s for the PEOPLE!” in fact hide the text, mar the story, and leave bewildered audience members wondering what the big deal about Shakespeare is, anyways.

To understand that big deal, playmakers and playgoers must be up to the task: there’s nothing casual about tacking this insanely dense poetry. Clarity and trackability come from a fierce, proud intelligence on the part of both creator and viewer. Shoot me for saying so, but Shakespeare is rarely suited to the breezy, rigorless, “accessible” attitude that usually comes from claiming “Shakespeare is for everyone” … even those who can’t parse a single line.

Easygoing populism further obscures the plays when the second-rate ingredients (directors, actors, designers) are doused with, well, “dressing”—extraneous, “funny” bits meant to give contemporary audiences a “way in.” As in the supermarket, theater “dressing” comes in many flavors and forms, among them, non-Shakespearean musical numbers, distracting props, groundless characterizations, and, the kicker, audience participation (SPARE ME! SPARE ME!) The distraction these bits engender is often compounded by incomprehensible, jolting speech, all amounting the theatrical equivalent of food poisoning.

So: Parks, civics centers, and geriatric watering holes, spare us your measly “Merchant,” your labored “Lear,” your pasty “Pericles,” and stick to something better suited to casual summertime audiences and your limited abilities. For if Shakespeare is going to make it to the next century, he’s going to need better than you’ve got.

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