The city’s other influential outlet for Shakespeare, the Folger Theatre, has proved just as seducible by directors lugging in their conceptual baggage. A rootin’, tootin’ “The Taming of the Shrew,” set in the Old West, just finished a run in its Capitol Hill playhouse, where one would have been forgiven for wondering why angry Kate didn’t use her trusty gun, or how Padua wound up being a suburb of Tombstone. The scouting for unique environments in which to speak in iambic pentameter goes on apace in other major cities: Witness the arch and overpraised new “As You Like It” in New York’s Central Park, set in the wilderness of mid-19th-century America, with banjo-picking exiles from the court — in this case, a fort like those eternally under attack in vintage cowboy-and-Indian flicks.
The fussing with the cosmetics of Shakespeare has become so routine that it is a shock to more devoted patrons of the Bard when any of his plays are performed these days in both the time and place the author intended them. Has a belief taken hold that only by placing Shakespeare’s characters in elaborate disguise can a contemporary theatergoer view them as relevant? The compulsive tinkering yields distressing side effects. Distracted audiences can not only lose touch with the pleasure of listening to Shakespeare’s language but also may become less able to distinguish clearly the worthier attempts at innovation.
The application, for instance, of anachronism to enlarge a theme can be a very useful tool, one that director Rebecca Bayla Taichman employed to fine effect in her abstracted updating of “The Taming of the Shrew” at Shakespeare Theatre in 2007. The difference here was in a director, challenging “Shrew’s” antiquated view of women, who carefully chose a dim sum of modern references that helped us see where attitudes have (or haven’t) evolved since Shakespeare’s time. In the cases of Shakespeare’s broader comedies, where the expectation expands for some degree of absurdity, the demand for rigorous logic recedes. This is partly why director Michael Kahn’s psychedelic Beatles-inspired “Love’s Labor’s Lost” in 2006 proved so easy to digest — and like.
Certainly, the exuberant elasticity of Shakespeare’s brain, and the sometimes fantastic landscapes he conjured, for places he’d never been — the enchanted island of “The Tempest”; the Alexandria of “Antony and Cleopatra” — justifiably electrify the creative impulses of directors and designers. I have no desire to curb the fertile dreamers of the theater. Sometimes a play fairly seamlessly accommodates a temporal transfer, as director Stephen Rayne accomplishes in his “Merry Wives,” by retaining the evocative English milieu of Windsor and simply pushing the era forward to World War I. And for the purposes of introducing the youngest to Shakespeare, some artful analogizing is useful, as the playwright Ken Ludwig has demonstrated, in adapting Shakespeare for high school drama clubs.
What I pine for, though, is for dreaming to be tailored a bit more conscientiously to the contours of the plays — and common sense.