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Stephen Greenblatt and Charles L. Mee's take on a "lost" Shakespeare work ends up being three hours of only marginal amusement. logo
Sarah Baskin and Thomas Kelley in Cardenio
(© Michael Lutch)
At last we have living proof: Strip a Shakespeare comedy of its gloriously ornate language, its rich metaphors, multifaceted characters, and keen psychological insight, and the rickety remains couldn't cut it as a contemporary sitcom. For Cardenio, now premiering at the American Repertory Theatre and slated to transfer next season to the Public Theater, star Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt and playwright Charles L. Mee have constructed a modern-day scaffolding designed both to replicate and to showcase a "lost" Shakespeare play, with unfortunate results.

Shakespeare's original 1613 script -- based on an episode from Don Quixote -- went missing for a century, was putatively rediscovered, then went up in smoke during the Covent Garden Playhouse fire of 1808. While the brief excerpts that we hear in the course of this relentlessly banal update do suggest the master was in top form, they also serve to underscore the impoverished linguistic landscape in which we now live.

"I just feel comfortable with you," says brand-new bride Camila (Sarah Baskin) on her wedding day at a lovely villa in Umbria, confessing her passionate attraction to her husband's best friend, Will (Thomas Kelley). Fearing that his spouse of a few hours is so open-hearted as to be easily seduced, Anselmo (Mickey Solis), the proper object of her affection, has assigned Will to the task, and the exercise is succeeding all too well. Meanwhile, Anselmo himself is sensing stirrings toward a college acquaintance (Leenya Rideout), who has turned up uninvited in the company of Anselmo's parents, who, for reasons never spelled out, are apparently non grata in their own home.

Maybe it's because they're "theatuh" people. Mom (Karen MacDonald) immediately recruits the young celebrants for a practice performance of Cardenio, which she and her husband (Will LeBow) will soon be mounting in "a little theatre in Maine." Breathlessly synopsizing the plot -- "It's about a man who seduces his best friend's wife" -- MacDonald at her bounciest can't sell it to this lifeless assemblage (much less the audience). Director Les Waters seems to have issued orders that, when not claiming the spotlight, the actors remain inert and unreactive, resulting in a series of antic episodes set amid static tableaux.

Right from the outset, as the players pile on amid a comic tarantella, the intent is clearly to charm; yet the harder the company tries, the less it succeeds. There are a few remunerative moments, such as when the bride's downer sister Doris (Maria Elena Ramirez) delivers a sociological spiel linking marriage to menstruation and protein deficiency -- plus Liz Wilson's outbursts as a the fed-up wife of a self-styled Lothario. For the most part, though, shticks are handed out like unearned indulgences, and after three hours, one emerges none the wiser and only very marginally amused.


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