Review | Taking Shakespeare: an overly slight take on the Bard

Gremlin Theatre, through June 3rd

John A.W. Stephens and Linda Kelsey in Taking Shakespeare. Photo by Alyssa Kristine.

For those with mentors willing to invest in them, it can prove invaluable and leave a lifelong impact. In the best of these relationships, inevitably both mentor and mentee are left as stronger, better people. John Murrell‘s Taking Shakespeare, at the Gremlin Theatre through June 3rd, tells an unassuming story of one such relationship, between teacher and student, who are both changed by their time together.

Murph is a struggling undergraduate with little motivation outside of appeasing his high-pressure mother. Said mother, a dean at the university, enlists one of her favorite professors—known as Prof—to coach Murph through Shakespeare’s Othello in a literature class.

Neither Prof nor Murph are too keen on the idea of the tutorship, but their initially tentative exploration of Othello soon allows them open up about their lives and dance around their hopes and fears, navigating the friction of their contrasting personalities and priorities.

Prof recognizes her dwindling influence and appeal among the student population and worries that her teaching and abrasive style is becoming obsolete after so many years as a professor. Suspecting that her tutelage of Murph is a final test for the continuation of her tenure, she must push Murph and herself to find common meaning in Othello’s text.

In this way, the show is primarily about how disparate people interpret and interact with art, and how with great works of art can serve as catalysts to human connection as each person’s experiences provide their own unique meanings and applications. Yet, while this theme is interesting enough, the show sputters for much of its 90-minute run-time.

The primary issue is that neither Murph nor Prof are particularly nuanced figures and their personal discoveries feel less than earned. Prof is an eccentric and stubborn academic with a history of romantic misfortunes, and Murph is a directionless youth still unsure of his own ambitions. Their portraits never surpass this sketched level and do not give viewers many opportunities to ponder deeper meaning. And while actors Linda Kelsey (Prof) and John A.W. Stephens (Murph) each find a few honest notes and nice moments, they play their roles broadly and would have benefitted from a few more days of rehearsal to iron out some bugs and get comfortable with the wordy nature of the play.

Luckily, Othello is a fascinating subject, so being invited to listen in on discussions of its themes and intentions does provide some interest. Exploring the cadence of Shakespeare’s “heartbeat” pentameter and hearing a dissection of Iago’s motivation is not without merit. Elements of the production’s design also work well. Carl Schoenborn‘s set – simply Prof’s long-time living room – feels appropriately lived-in, and A. Emily Heaney‘s costumes convey the contrasting natures of each of the characters.

Ultimately, what Taking Shakespeare inspires is a desire to revisit Othello, which is certainly one of the Bard’s finest tragedies. Next to its high drama, the quaint, fairly small-stakes struggles of Murph and Prof provide an interesting, if odd juxtaposition. Nevertheless, if you would enjoy a literary dissection of a great work, you may find some kindred spirits in this slightly uneven look at the classic.

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