Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Girl's Guide to Bad Shakespeare

It only takes a few minutes for the sad truth about "Shakespeare's Actresses in America" to sink in: we're supposed to be pretending that Rebekah Maggor (at left) is really pulling this thing off, and she's so not. It's not that Ms. Maggor lacks talent; she's a statuesque actress with a cool yet exotic presence who naturally conjures an aura of faintly bored sexual challenge, and I'd be interested to see her essay any number of roles (Hedda Gabler comes immediately to mind). What she's not, however, is the kind of chameleon who can believably inhabit the styles of about a dozen other actresses (her own presence is just too palpably obdurate). Yet that's precisely what she has set out to do, in a 70-minute tour of famous turns by such stars of the past and present as Ellen Terry, Eva Le Gallienne, Mary Pickford, and even Elizabeth Taylor and Claire Danes.

The results are a weird kind of waxworks, in which Maggor successfully captures the outward style of each actress (and hence the conventions of her day) but fails repeatedly to channel their inner essences. This gap is most obvious when she's mimicking the ironic shrugs of Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet, or Elizabeth Taylor's tinny, spitfire diction in Taming of the Shrew (performances with which many are familiar through film and video). Yes, Maggor accurately apes these women's mannerisms, but not their method: she misses both Danes's quicksilver intelligence and Taylor's near-slatternly sensuality - so what we get are their diction and tics grafted onto Maggor's own elegant, distant presence. The result is that "performance" after "performance" seems really, really bad - in fact, each seems bad even within the standards of its day.

I mean, sure, it's fun to mock the noble tremolo of actresses from a century ago, like Ellen Terry and Julia Marlowe - but something tells me these women made the conventions of their age work on their own terms. Ditto Anita Louise, whose Titania here looks almost absurdly daft, but who seems utterly at home within the art-deco artifice of Warner Bros' Midsummer Night's Dream (also available on home video). Predictably, Maggor's on firmer ground with roles that more closely fit her own skills - she threw off some sparks as Lady Macbeth, for instance - and it was interesting to hear Desdemona in Yiddish (via Celia Adler), or Hamlet in French (via Sarah Bernhardt). Notes on Paul Robeson's debut as Othello at our own Brattle Theatre - via Maggor's tour guide, the intriguingly butch producer Margaret Webster - were also welcome. But you can't really say that Maggor made any of her actresses look good - and as somebody once said, ay, there's the rub.


  1. Good call on this one, though I think I disliked it less then you; or at least I didn’t find it as actively irritating. I described it to a friend as a pleasant enough diversion… but just that- a diversion. I don’t think it was Maggors intention to mock the actresses in question at all, but it’s a big part of the problem with the play that it comes across that way. A stronger performer, could I think make a better case for the play, for while charming and likeable Maggor lacks the power and charisma to truly make what is not great material her own in the way that some performers can transform the lesser. Beyond this though, problems with the play itself abound- it isn't a very cohesive piece and while Margaret Webster (who was supposed to be hosting and introducing the play) is an interesting choice to represent the impact that American Women have had on performing Shakespeare, it's never clear why she would be talking about performers who lived many years after her death, or indeed what time the play is supposed to be located in. The tone of the production is also uneven, and the ending fizzles and dissipates without a cohesive link to the beginning to make it a whole. Originally presented in embryonic fashion at the ART a year or so back (from which Maggor is a graduate) the play seems like the kind of performance piece which was probably originally developed as some kind of an exercise… you know how the saying goes, every performer ought to have a one person show, and this is hers. More then anything, it seems to be a missed opportunity to me since I think the idea behind it (presenting the different acting styles of great performers as a tapestry of sorts) is really interesting.

  2. Hi Dan, thanks for your comment. I didn't critique the show's "script," as you do, but I agree with most of what you have to say. There are deeper issues here, however - Maggor seems to want us to believe that the actresses themselves were the sole begetters of these performances, yet it's obvious that they were responding to the historical standards of various periods (as well as various production styles). These really weren't their own artistic choices. Beyond this conceptual problem lies another artistic issue -are these actresses really "channeled" by simply imitating their mannerisms and tics? Such an idea would have been anathema to a method actress of years ago - yet ironically enough, the success of the "verbatim theatre" of Anna Deavere Smith and others has led many to believe exactly the opposite - including, apparently, Maggor. But I'm afraid we largely buy Ms. Smith's imitations of, say, unknown Jewish matrons in Brooklyn, because her speeches are understood as political speech as well as characterization. Maggor doesn't have that crutch - what's more, she's trying to conjure famously successful personalities whom in some cases are still well-known today. And I'm afraid "verbatim theatre" just doesn't go that far.