Rebekah Maggor in Shakespeare's Actresses in America
(© Eric Antoniou)
Rebekah Maggor in Shakespeare's Actresses in America
(© Eric Antoniou)
Promising a panorama of famous female interpreters over the past century and a half, Rebekah Maggor's solo show, Shakespeare's Actresses in America, now being revived by the Huntington Theatre Company, is really more of an illustrated lecture, with the "illustrations" consisting of the writer/actor impersonating renowned performers tackling key scenes. It's a didactic exercise that belongs, if anywhere, in the schools -- though spitballs would likely fly.

What is the point of reminding us how stiff and affected were the favored acting styles of old? It's never quite clear, in this largely humorless production, whether Maggor is inviting us to sneer or to worship at the altar. In any case, do we really need, as prelude to the excerpts, constant synopses of Shakespeare's greatest hits? Anyone over the age of 12 is likely to feel insulted by Maggor's evident lack of faith in her audience's level of cultural literacy.

More to the point: How accurate are her reenactments? In the case of legends like Ellen Terry, few of us under the age of 80 would be in a position to know. True, filmic records of La Sarah Bernhardt do exist, but Maggor makes the mistake of replicating her Hamlet (in passable French) at vintage-recording speed. Subject Enrico Caruso to the same RPM and he too would sound like Mickey Mouse on helium.

Maggor's contemporary snippets are likewise off the mark. You'll strain in vain to detect Elizabeth Taylor's tinny diction and mid-Atlantic accent in a recreated scene from the 1967 film of The Taming of the Shrew. In Kathleen Turner's turn as Titania (recalled from an Arena Stage production in the early 1980s), there's no trace of her signature smoky register, just a couple of thickened S's. (This miss is all the more perplexing, given that Maggor served as a voice and speech coach on 2005's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring the actress.) Yes, she captures Claire Danes' slouchy body language and Valley Girl intonations in Baz Luhrmann's streetwise 1996 film Romeo + Juliet -- but that's not exactly a daunting challenge.

Maggor's worst misstep is to have chosen as narrator, not her own self -- a handsome young woman with a clear affinity for the Bard -- but Margaret Webster, famed primarily for her bold choice in casting Paul Robeson in a 1943 production of Othello. Her progressive leanings notwithstanding, Webster's speaking style is pure "theah-tuh" throwback, and Maggor's own presumable passion is subsumed by this stiff and unappealing figure's pedagogical agenda. The choice also leads to distracting anachronisms: There's little shock in seeing Webster light up mid-lecture, but one doubts she snuck swigs from a plastic water bottle.

No opportunity to spend 70 minutes immersed in Shakespeare can be considered a total loss. The pity of this production is that you're never allowed to bask for long in the glories of the text.