Big Secret Theatre
January 10 to 28, 2012
Listen to my review of Taking Shakespeare on this morning’s CBC radio’s Eyeopener
Happy New Year everyone – I hope your holidays were splendid and that you are all ready to get back into the thick of the theatre season. As usual in Calgary, the start of a new year means it’s time once again for the High Performance Rodeo and there are five theatre or theatre-ish offerings on the schedule this year. The productions hail from all over the globe, but it’s the hometown darlings One Yellow Rabbit that always have the biggest theatre buzz heading into the festival. This year has been especially buzz-worthy thanks to the Rabbits scoring Taking Shakespeare, a new play by the award-winning John Murrell that he himself stars in. If you are unsure who Mr. Murrell is or why this is a big deal, I suggest you take a look at his entry in the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia to get a handle on his accomplishments and accolades. http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Murrell%2C%20John
Taking Shakespeare is the first new play by Murrell in over a decade and I was very pleased to see that he hasn’t lost his touch. This 90 minute one-act, two-character play is charming, funny, poignant and despite some thin narrative edges, it was a delight to watch. Murph is a 24-year-old college slacker who’s flunking his English Lit course; specifically he just doesn’t understand any of the Shakespeare plays that have been assigned. In an effort to help, his mother who is the president of the University, arranges for him to be tutored by another instructor at the college – the Professor (played by Murrell) -who is an old-school Shakespeare-ologoist if there is such a thing. A devoted lover of Shakespeare’s work, the Professor knows all the plays by heart and is very opinionated on how they should be taught, in what order they should be taught and how old you need to be to understand them. Naturally, the Professor is horrified at the selection Murph has been given and is equally disgusted by Murph’s ignorance of Shakespeare in general and refuses to tutor him. That is until Murph tells him that Othello is on his reading list. The play is one of the Professor’s favourites and it hits a soft spot that gets him to agree to work with Murph. The tutoring sessions that ensue are the meat of the play, and you do get a lot of Shakespeare in the script as the two work on Othello, but the play really isn’t about the lessons per se, it’s about what the two characters learn about each other in the process and more importantly what they discover about themselves over time.
While having the playwright as one of the stars in the play is unusual, it’s not as unusual as the choice that was made in the casting of Murph. In a reversal of what would have happened in Shakespeare’s day – namely a man playing a woman’s role – Taking Shakespeare casts a woman in the role of the college slacker. And not just any woman, but Denise Clarke, who is also twice the age of the character she portrays. For the most part she does a decent job, but it was a job that got better as the play went on. The start of her performance felt “acted” and overly card-boardy with the male mannerisms either not quite right or at the very least not natural. But as the momentum of the play took off so did her performance and by the end of the production she gave us a fully formed character that you could connect with and one that you could pretty much forget was being acted by a middle-aged woman.
As for Murrell’s writing, the play is a very simple premise without much action, so if the writing isn’t good you really don’t have much traction. I am happy to say this was not a problem; Murell’s writing as always was excellent. The play had humour and humanity, it didn’t hermetically seal every plot twist, it was terribly smart in places and it was also profoundly sad at times in a way that didn’t shamefully pull on the audience’s heartstrings.
There were a few dropped threads in the writing that ever so slightly dented the excellence armour – most notably an exchange after Murph snoops in the Professors closet that has the Professor barely aggravated or upset by this invasion of privacy. Frankly I was shocked that his character was not more offended or angry as this seemed totally out of step with the Professor persona we being presented and for a moment broke the spell. Thankfully this moment passed quickly and was not broken again until an odd little drunken scene late in the play which had the Professor dancing by himself to Prince’s Raspberry Beret, that while funny to see, felt totally unnecessary and just wrong for the character. Truthfully I can’t say if this was a glitch in Murrell’s writing or the only wrong step in Blake Brooker’s otherwise respectable direction. But either way I do wish they hadn’t included it.
As for Murrell’s acting, I can’t believe he doesn’t do more of it because he’s very good at it. Right from his first line he burrows deep into the character of the Professor and gives us great outrage and bluster and educational snobbery. But the real talent shows when Murrell is playing the calmer moments, the parts where he needs to be contemplative or compassionate or vulnerable. These are the really hard emotions to evoke onstage and Murrell delivered them with the realness and honesty of an inspired performance.
So yes, this is one of those cases where the goods do live up to the hype. True, the idea of a play centered on a tutoring session isn’t exactly new, we’ve seen this before in various forms over the years, but Taking Shakespeare does it really well with a lot of heart, great writing and good to great performances. This is a play that will have a tremendously wide appeal and don’t worry; you don’t need to be an expert on Othello or like Shakespeare to enjoy this production. But what you do need to do if you are going to see this play is learn how to turn your cell phone off. No less than three times during the production someone’s cell rang or beeped, and that my friends is a BIG no-no in live theatre. So go, enjoy but please, hit the off button first.
For the guys – The juxtaposition between an under-achieving man in his prime and an old-timer with accolades that are fading will resonate with you no matter what stage of life you are at. The chuckles are plenty and the 90 minutes moves along quickly. SEE IT
For the girls – Male or not, these characters are empathetic and you will have a soft spot for the Professor as a kind of avuncular figure. You’ll be interested to know that originally the role of the Prof was written for a woman. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – You’ll laugh, you’ll sniffle, you’ll like both characters and the simple premise is easy to follow and engaging. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie– Murrell’s writing is wonderful and to hear him perform his own words is a real treat – one he delivers with great talent. Ignore some of the thin spots and you will thoroughly enjoy yourself. SEE IT