Two plays currently running in Spring Green invite questions about Shakespeare, the man and the playwright.
Was William Shakespeare bisex- ual? History has provided clues but not a definitive answer. However, the possibility is a central conceit behind “Shakespeare’s Will,” which opened Aug. 17 as part of American Players Theatre’s “second season.
The one-woman show features APT veteran Tracy Michelle Arnold as Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, who was pregnant with the first of the pair’s three children when they married in 1582. In 2005, Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen used the very few facts available about Hathaway to create a 90-minute monologue that commences on the day of Shakespeare’s funeral and retraces in circular and fragmentary fashion the pair’s tumultuous life. Much of that life was spent apart, with Hathaway remaining in Stratford to raise their children, and Shakespeare pursuing his literary and dramatic aspirations in London.
One of the few historical facts known about Hathaway – that Shakespeare’s will bequeathed to his wife his “second-best bed” – becomes Thiessan’s foundation to postulate an open-marriage agreement between the couple that drives conjecture about the playwright’s sexual orientation and Hathaway’s own transgressions.
Hathaway revels in her own sexual promiscuity while pining for her lost love, who might have been having dalliances of a slightly different type in the capital. Several Shakespeare sonnets appear to be directed at a man, which further fuels play’s dramatic premise.
But the truth of the situation matters little given Arnold’s bravura performance as a woman left largely alone to deal with her too-familiar familial obligations. Director Brenda DeVita draws the full range of emotions from Arnold,who uses nothing more than a bare stage stocked with a chair, a nightstand and, presumably, the playwright’s second-best bed to create a compelling scenario.
The actress sings and soars, cringes and cries her way through a role that embraces the most universal of emotions, giving them voice and context both foreign and familiar.
Without Shakespeare, Hathaway presumably would have been of little interest either historically or dramatically. But the universality of her personal struggle characterized by Arnold’s performance touches us all.
It’s not unusual for even the most gifted artist to occasionally miss the mark. In Shakespeare’s case, literary critics refer to his misses as the “problem plays.” One of the most unfamiliar and problematical, “Troilus and Cressida,” opened Aug. 18.
The problem plays, which include “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Measure for Measure” and, for some, “A Winter’s Tale,” contain unresolved issues facing the protagonist – or a problem in classifying the play. Both of these problems affect APT’s production. When it comes to the comedy-or-tragedy question, “Troilus and Cressida” is neither fish nor fowl, which at 200 minutes long makes it a sizeable dramatic serving to swallow.
But much of the production’s charm, if that’s the right word, is that director William Brown has pulled out all the stops in telling Shakespeare’s tale of the Trojan War, stretching the bounds of APT’s family-friendly stage in the process.
Troilus (Nate Burger) and Cressida (Laura Rook) are a young Trojan couple brought together by Cressida’s scheming uncle Pandarus (Jim DeVita, in a scene-stealing performance). Presumably, they are meant to mirror the more famous relationship between Paris (Michael Perez), a Trojan, and Helen (Ally Carey), a Greek, which is what all all the fighting is about. In T and C’s case, boy gets girl, boy loses girl – she’s traded to the Greeks for a prisoner of war – and that’s about it for them.
The conflict continues as the opposing forces scheme. The Trojans debate whether to return Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” to the Greeks and be done with her. The Greeks struggle because their greatest warrior Achilles (Eric Parks) refuses to fight, choosing instead to dally in his tent with his lover Patroclus (Samuel Ashdown).
Each side realizes that it’s no way to run a war.
Brown apparently also saw the challenges facing his ornately costumed characters, choosing to spice up the mix and season the impending sorrow. In her only speaking scene, Helen writhes in sensuous dance before Paris, stripping a nearby male servant to the waist and drawing the men into an impromptu threesome. Achilles and Patroclus are a little more out than APT audiences are used to seeing. There is a considerable amount of beef- cake, and the whole thing ends with a great sword-clashing, bloodletting finale, resulting in a mortal blow to the Trojans and their ultimate retreat.
There is comedy amid the chaos, primarily from DeVita’s Pandarus, who capers around in a slightly simian stance, chattering in phrases and using a voice distinct from the rest of the cast’s stentorian couplets. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to balance the play’s tragic aspects or lack of resolution.
One wonders if Shakespeare, who wrote “Troilus and Cressida” on the heels of “Hamlet,” may have simply run out of steam.
“Shakespeare’s Will” runs through Oct. 21 and “Troilus and Cressida” runs through Oct. 5 at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road in Spring Green. Call 608-588-2361 or go to americanplayers.org.