Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Taking Shakespeare
Gremlin Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Marisol


Linda Kelsey and John A.W. Stephens
Photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography
The title of John Murrell's 2012 play Taking Shakespeare threw me at first until I learned that the play's two characters are an English lit professor and a college student. Ah, "taking Shakespeare," as in taking an intro college course. In this case, the professor, known only as Prof, is 60-something, grown detached and cynical by the decline of students' intellectual curiosity and rigor, and the eroding support of her administration. Played by the superb Linda Kelsey (who succeeds at keeping her usual luminescence toned down to convey Prof's existential fatigue), we are far more drawn to this character than her whiney, self-pitying nature might otherwise allow.

Murph, is a 24-year-old freshman, played in a persuasive and warm performance by John A. W. Stephens. Murph is just starting college because he took some time off to think and travel. When asked by Prof "Oh, to Europe?" he responds "No, Mexico: old and New," as if, surely that covers all bases. As Murph frequently states, he has not lived up to his mother's expectations. She was the Prof's student decades ago, and now is the dean of the play's unnamed mid-level liberal arts college. His mother set up a tutorial between Prof and her son, hoping he will pass the class and manage to avoid disappointing her once again.

That's the match-up in Gremlin Theatre's production of Taking Shakespeare, which runs ninety minutes without intermission. After an opening scene in which the two have a most unpromising first meeting, the play divides into scenes where they attack sections of the play, which becomes the instrument of Prof's tutorial: Othello. Those sessions are increasingly intense. Reading aloud from Shakespeare's script, Prof reveals some of her own demons and Murph seeks in earnest to understand the characters' motivations and intricate use of language. His is taken by the urgency of Shakespeare's use of iambic verse, what he calls the "heartbeat" of the play. From their grudging start, both Prof and Murph become genuinely engaged—he in the power of Shakespeare, she in the rapture of empowering her charge to break through his own recalcitrance and become a seeker of truth.

Murrell's script excels in bringing out the power and pertinence of Shakespeare, as our two protagonists unearth new meanings and revel in pleasure. For him it is the thrill of new discovery, for her, the affirmation that in a world of shifting and eroding values, some qualities remain constant, including her own strength as she faces an unwelcome fork in her life. Their impassioned reading from different sections and characters in Othello bring the Moor's tragedy alive to the audience as well. Perhaps those with previous familiarity with the play have an advantage, but in tutoring Murph, Prof makes the thrust of the narrative clear and the reason why it matters even more compelling.

Where Murrell is less successful is in enabling us to understand these characters. Murph is adrift—at age 24, he has not a clue what he wants to do with his life, and can barely articulate what he does not want. Other than having a controlling mother, we learn nothing about what makes him tick, why he is so lost. Not a clue about a romantic partner or friendships, part-time employment. Prof is fleshed out a bit more, with a story about how she became enamored with Shakespeare, an unrequited first love, and admitting her lack of ambition in staying at the same school for an entire career without seeking advancement. Yet we really don't know why she has become such a dried up remnant of her former self. Her exchanges with Murph reveal that she still has the capacity to be a magnetic teacher. Why did she cease to deliver that to her classroom? What was the foundation of her lack of ambition and her weakness for self-pity? How did she come to be friendless and loveless? We are given nothing.

Fortunately, director Peter Christian Hansen has paced the show to keep us hooked on the growing rapport of the two characters, who think they have nothing in common, then slowly unveil all that they share beneath the skin. With sublime performances from both Linda Kelsey and John A. W. Williams, Hansen is able to draw out the same growing fascination for Shakespeare's language that they experience, and make us care about these two lost souls even not knowing how they arrived at their states or where they may be heading. Kelsey is a well-known stage and screen actor, and lives up to her always high standard of performance. Williams is relatively new to the scene, but hopefully will become a more frequent presence on our stages.

Carl Shoenborn's set design is classic college-town housing, a century old home haphazardly divided into upper and lower apartments, with frayed oriental rugs, faded sofa and chairs, an unused fireplace, and bookcases everywhere. Katherine Horowitz delivers expert sound design, especially providing the droning rock music bass coming from the student tenant who lives in the apartment above Prof. A. Emily Heaney's costumes are spot on, with Prof recycling through the same few items of apparel that have somewhat passed their expiration date, and Murph in rumpled school boy clothes that convey his resistance to entry into adulthood.

In discussing the larger than life quality of Othello and Iago, Prof asserts to Murph that their largeness causes us to "move around less comfortably inside our own skins, inside our own limitations. That discomfort makes us change things, and that is the whole point of living in the world. Art is not great because it stacks up against an academic rubric, but because of how it prompts us to change, to feel, and to be.

Though a slight and imperfect play, Taking Shakespeare is well worth seeing. It is a potent reminder that what makes Shakespeare, and any great artist, important in our lives is not their fame or their status in the echelon of academia. It is their capacity to challenge us and open the possibility of change in our lives, to push us to make change in the world around us. Further, it is well suited to Gremlin Theatre's strengths, intimate productions of plays with strong emotional arcs, with space for vibrant performances. In this case a towering performance by a veteran, Kelsey, and one by a rising talent, Stephens, bring the characters and their predicaments to life. When the lights came on I was sorry not to learn what lay ahead for each of these two people, whom I had met just ninety minutes before. Like Murph, I was hooked on the story.

Taking Shakespeare, through June 3, 2018, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: General admission - $28.00, seniors and Fringe button holders - $25.00, under 30, pay half your age for any performance. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.

Writer: John Murrell; Director and Producer: Peter Christian Hansen; Technical Director, Set and Lighting Design: Carl Schoenborn; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Prop Design and Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer.

Cast: Linda Kelsey (Prof), John A.W. Stephens (Murph).


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