27 September 2008: Nelson, How Shakespeare Won the West

Matinee. Huntington Theatre, Boston. Directed by Jonathan Moscone

This play by Richard Nelson looks with great amusement and notable sympathy at the Shake­speare phenomenon, the remarkable popularity of Shakespeare — the man and his works — that seems to have pervaded all regions of the United States (states and territories) in the course of the nineteenth century, which was also the great age of touring theatrical troupes. It tells the story, more specifically, of a troupe formed by Thomas Jefferson Calhoun, played with a somewhat dour expression by Will LeBow, and his wife Alice, a former actress, played by Mary Beth Fisher as a plain-Jane wife with great patience and fortitude, who decide to try to realize their dreams by heading west and playing Shakespeare to the miners. It is 1848 – 1849, needless to say.

And it is a story told in quasi-narrative format, helping us over the many trans­itions and keeping us well oriented toward the eventual goal: California and a permanent theatre. The unit set, a tall, plain wood structured affair with a couple of platforms and open areas to make do for stages and quickly hung curtains. The Calhouns put together a viable acting troupe from local volunteers and out-of-work or down and out professionals, assigning each the traditional line-of-business role — leading lady, leading man, ingénue, juvenile, utility actor, and so on (curiously, no role identified as heavy father or low comedy). The play, which is played without intermission, runs one hour forty minutes — not a min­ute too long, and in fact it would have benefited from having a few tucks taken in the homespun fabric of the narrative action.

But there are some successful moments and sequences, bordering on the won­­der­ful. The most memorable, perhaps, was the closing sequence. Discovering themselves to be in competition with the famous tragedian Edwin Booth (who has come to California in the usual way, by boat), they are flummoxed. But then they are rescued by a well-off lover of the theatre and, particularly, Shakespeare, George Edgar Rice, who stakes the troupe to a brand-new theatre and provides them with an updated version of Hamlet that he himself wrote. It turns out to be an actual travesty unearthed in the archives of the Shakespeare Institute at Strat­ford-upon-Avon, and it becomes the play-within-the-play that ends the show, itself followed by one of the best end-of-play dances I ever remember seeing.

We have decided to subscribe to the Huntington Theatre this season, a five play series including Stoppard’s Rock and Roll and other good prospects, forgoing the ART, which has a new artistic director but is offering the season that pre-dates this director’s arrival and seems rather unpromising. We will bide our time, watch the reviews of the ART series, and make what we hope are some judicious decisions, partly so as to avoid the more extreme European avant-garde auteurs, who care not a damn (by and large) for a play as a play, but only for the deep, troubled, radically “new” statement it can be twisted into making. Pinter’s Birth­day Party set in a multiroom submarine, a production of perhaps ten years ago, is the sort of thing we want to avoid, or the more recent Three Sisters of last year, performed at such a glacial pace that a gentleman in the first few rows is said to have stood up, in the midst of an unconscionably long silence, and cried out, “Will somebody please say something?”


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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