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.