Tonight (April 22), Theatre for a New Audience will hold a benefit at the Puck Building in which Dame Cleo Laine and her accompanist-husband John Dankworth will present their cabaret called The Bard and Beyond. How fitting--for, 438 years ago tomorrow, one William Shakespeare was born. Precisely 386 years ago tomorrow, too, one William Shakespeare died, but his plays sure didn't go with him. Since his last birthday, Will once again has had another good season in New York. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) has played for most of the season at the Century Center, but we almost had the complete works of William Shakespeare in other Manhattan venues, as well.
In almost alphabetical order: As You Like It was done at the Women of Color Arts Festival. Cymbeline happened because Theatre for a New Audience was invited by the RSC to stage a new production first in England and later here, and did so with great, engagement-extended success. Both parts of Henry IV landed productions by the Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, as well as concert readings by the Judith Shakespeare Company. Julius Caesar was at the Moonwork Theatre Company. King Lear played the Pulse, with Lear reconceived as a Mafia Don, while the Needcompany did that classic as a performance work by Belgium's Jan Lauwers. Gorilla Rep did both Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Measure for Measure was staged at the Acting Shakespeare Company as well as the Delacorte, where it was directed by Mary Zimmerman (who had a good season, too). Much Ado about Nothing was seen at the Aquila Theatre Company, the Pearl Theatre Company, and the Spartan Theatre Company (The last-named, I suspect, doesn't offer much in the way of sets and costumes.) Othello got three productions, too: one at the Joseph Papp, one at Africa Arts, and one at Neolight Theatre Company, whose press releases stressed: "This production contains full frontal nudity."
Richard II got a reading at the Judith Shakespeare Company and Richard III was at the Actors Theatre Workshop, but there was also André Serban's Richard 3 adapted from both Henry VI and Richard III. The Taming of the Shrew was mounted by the New Perspectives Theatre Company (and, of course, the musical inspired by this tale spent the first part of the season at the Martin Beck). The Tempest was presented by both the Judith Shakespeare Company and the Pulse Ensemble Theatre, not to mention a one-man version "performed in a kiddie swimming pool in 60 minutes." Twelfth Night was at both the Prospect Theatre Company and the Pulse Ensemble Theatre, and a new musical version of it, called Illyria, was produced by the former group. Two Gentlemen of Verona inspired Two Girls from Vermont: A Dirty Pop Extravaganza, as well as the subtitle of Edward Albee's new play The Goat via the play's most famous quotation, "Who Is Sylvia?" And The Winter's Tale was done at Theater Ten Ten and The Stomping Ground Theatre this winter.
Then there was Romeo and Juliet, currently in rep at the Pearl Theatre Company. Though it got only one production this year, its influence was far-reaching. Theatreworks/USA did an adaptation for its young audiences. "Romeo and Juliet" was a song in Reefer Madness. In The Shape of Things, when Philip thought Adam was fooling around with his girlfriend, he said, "So long, Romeo." In Cabaret, Fraulein Schneider, when rejecting Herr Shultz, says, "I am no Juliet, and you are no Romeo." As the curtain rose on The Voice of the Turtle at the Mint, Sally, a budding actress, was seen memorizing a scene from the classic. Now, nightly at the Royale, John Merrick discusses the tragedy with Mrs. Kendal in The Elephant Man and, at the Music Box, Fortune's Fool takes its title from this play.
Just as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) saves Hamlet for last, so have I. There was Peter Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet at BAM, not to be confused with the Hamlet done with puppets courtesy of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater or The Hamlet Project, William Electric Black's so-called "edgy, urban, hip-hop rock musical," or Helsinor, Todd Alcott's farce in which Hamlet was seen as immature and incompetent. Uncle Bob, in Austin Pendleton's play of the same name, went to audition for the title role in Hamlet though he was 60 if he was a day. In Paul Rudnick's Rude Entertainment, Paul Lynde said that he always wanted to play Hamlet, too, and gave us a sample via Peter Bartlett's appropriately prissy voice: "To be or not to be, missy." At least in David Rambo's Rhinebeck, Andy, a vainglorious actor who aged prematurely before he got to play the great Dane, admitted that now he'll "have to take a stab at Polonius." (Which I guess makes him Hamlet after all.)
In the star-studded production of The Sea Gull at the Delacorte, Meryl Streep's Arkadina and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Konstantin quoted lines from Hamlet. So did Hair at Encores! ("What a piece of work is man?" and "The rest is silence"). Finally, in 45 Seconds From Broadway, Lewis J. Stadlen referred to another character in Shakespeare's greatest work when he said, "Horatio had fellatio." (I'm not kidding. He did say it. Several times.)
Which brings us to all the Shakespearean quotations and takeoffs that showed up in other places. A line from The Merchant of Venice was heard in Major Barbara when Andrew Undershaft moaned, "Oh, my daughter! Oh, my ducats!" "Et tu, Jeeves," Bertie Wooster asked of his butler in that Andrew Lloyd Webber flop. And in Santa Claus Is Coming Out, Kris Kringle, astonished that many of his workers turned against him when he admitted to being gay, said, "Et tu, Peter?" to his foreman. And we would have heard another quotation from Julius Caesar--"Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are the underlings"--said by John Wilkes Booth had Assassins not been postponed.
In Ducks Crossing, a dim-witted farce at the Vital Theatre Company, an incompetent lawyer, coming to serve a paper, happened to say "What light from yonder window breaks?" to the owner of a rural pub, who then asked him, "You break a window?" Later, he again quoted the bard when he told her, "Get thee to a nunnery"--to which she responded, "You mind if I go to the bathroom first?" (As I said: dim-witted.)
There were other tangential offerings. Yvonne Hudson did her one-woman show Mrs. Shakespeare: Will's First & Last Love. Something called William Shakespeare's Haunted Ship, in which the Bard's ghost played host to his characters, was presented by the Faux-Real Theatre Company. And speaking of faux-real: The Hope Theatre Company hoped that they presented one of Shakespeare's plays: Edward III. Never heard of it? Well, in 1997, some scholars said that the script was Shakespeare's--that he wrote it before he started his Richard II-Henry V history cycle. Plenty of others said no. Who knows?
Finally, a personal note: Whenever I bring a visitor to my ever-messy apartment, as I take out my keys and prepare to open the door to show the disgrace that is inside, I always speak one of Will's lines from Julius Caesar: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]