Live!...at the Cockpit
nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
February 26, 2009
Live! . . . at the Cockpit: Will at Work With the Lord Chamberlain's Men, currently playing at the Kraine Theater as part of the FRIGID Festival, announces in its press release an ambition as large as its title: to show audiences "the real meaning of Shakespeare's text!" (William Shakespeare was an English playwright of some popularity.)
It opens in amiably scruffy fashion with the actors wearing green t-shirts with their headshots and resumes, addressing the audience as both "themselves" and "their characters," while two loudly practice swordplay. Co-writer/director T.D. White, after an opening speech rendered largely inaudible by the swordfight, then introduces, for reasons not altogether clear, a "short film that was thrown together in half an hour and shot in the dark," which lives up to its billing, after which there is a long scene change.
We are then transported to backstage at the Globe in 1599, while the Rude Mechanicals' play-within-a-play from A Midsummer Night's Dream is being performed onstage, which for this purpose is actually backstage. For the duration of the scene, we watch the actors mess around, silently act out/mock the scene being played onstage, try on wigs they're not supposed to wear, rudely awaken sleeping actors, and all the things idle actors do between scenes (with the exception of modern anachronisms like smoking cigarettes, sending text messages, and listening to iPods). Shakespeare himself, here playing the character of the Lion, is a bit more uptight than his castmates, but as the author and director, one would expect nothing less.
Once the performance is over, we watch Shakespeare and company rehearse and develop some new material from Henry V. Shakespeare directs his actors with all the patience he can muster, which is not very much, and after a few seemingly random—and occasionally quite funny—scenes being performed, the cast adjourns to the tavern, where a scene from Henry IV is played out. And then, abruptly, the show ends.
Here is as good a time as any to confess that if Live! . . . at the Cockpit showed the audience "the real meaning of Shakespeare's text," it went completely over my head. It appeared for most of the hour it runs to be a random collection of vignettes about actors and acting, with Shakespeare serving the role of giving those actors some nice text to speak. Another, probably more accurate, guess is that it was a labor of love mounted by big fans of the big fellow, with favorite scenes highlighted. In either case, a sense of meaning is missing to outsiders: why these scenes, aside from that they're good and the authors like them? There is a complete absence of drama and narrative arc, with an ending that manages to simultaneously make no sense, pose several questions that have nothing to do with Shakespeare, acting, history, or anything that has happened in the rest of the play, and come completely out of nowhere.
There is a possibility that the author/directors are not to blame for the confusion. Dave Warth is very good as Shakespeare, acting with clarity and precision even as for the entire tavern scene he is forced to play the same beat about a dozen times in a row, and James Richard is charismatic as Richard Burbage (who was believed to be the original Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and Lear), doing a convincing job portraying a man who could be the biggest star of his era. The rest of the cast, however, tends to recite Shakespeare's text for the joy of listening to the way the words sound, with little care to the meaning. When speaking non-Shakespeare text they appear to trip over their lines, seeming unprepared.
This last leads to an overarching note on the entire production: it seems as though not enough time was taken developing the initial ideas—the high concept pitch "an Elizabethan Noises Off" is interesting, even if it bears a bit of resemblance to the movie Shakespeare in Love—or rehearsing the actors. It would be very interesting to see this show again after a few more months' development, with more connective tissue between the passages from Shakespeare. Then, its promise as the kind of show that will delight longtime Shakespeare worshippers and win new converts in equal numbers might be realized.