Language is a funny thing. At first glance, a production of a Shakespeare text set in the deep South might seem to be a frighteningly cacophonous proposition. But, given that the indigenous American southern accent is actually an offshoot of the Elizabethan English accent, it is not so jolting a sound as one would imagine. The lilting rhythms of the American South actually match the Shakespearean meters quite nicely, and they work to clarify the old-style language in ways that are astonishing and refreshing.
Bottom's Dream Arts, a relative newcomer on the Off-Off-Broadway classics scene, has had the audacity to set its current production, Mr. Bill's problematic though oft-performed A Winter's Tale, in the Athens, Georgia of the recent past. Its tale of the rippling disastrous effects of unfounded jealousy is surprisingly suited to this conceit, its outsized characters particularly comfortable in the southern gothic vein of Tennessee Williams and William Inge.
However, Janet L. Gupton's and Barry Childs's production rarely, if ever, capitalized on the rich potential of their concept. Seen at the first preview, whatever minor technical glitches present would undoubtedly work themselves out as the run progressed. But even a run of 500 performances probably couldn't smooth out the very real problems inherent in Gupton and Childs's production. Poorly cast and haphazardly directed, they tiptoed around their concept, never taking the risks necessary to fulfill the promise of the idea, relying on the accents and "good ol' boy" camaraderie to carry the evening. With few exceptions, the performances of the cast were uniformly stiff, rife with obvious acting choices, a tentative physicality and an uncomfortable feeling of "gosh darnit, we're doing Shakespierre" reverence. The few exceptions were the terrifically natural Paul James Bowen as an elegant, sincere Camillo, Bryan Richards as an impetuous Florizel, and the commanding Jennifer Loia Alexander as an intense, fiery Paulina. In fact, Alexander's outstanding performance actually made sense of the concept, unfortunately showing what could have been had everything else in the production been up to her level.
The set, credited to "consultant" Steve Steinberg, was a dismal recreation of an aristocratic living room that looked more like a poorly finished basement on Long Island. Billy Haus's lighting was thorough if uninspired, and the costumes (uncredited) looked like they were pulled from garage sales, thrift shops, and the backs of closets.
In New York, productions of Shakespeare's works are a dime a dozen,
and the competition is fierce. In order to stand out from the
crowd, companies need to take creative risks, provided said risks
serve the material. A well-cast, imaginatively directed and produced
new look at a familiar text can be magic for everyone involved.
But to pull back from a bold idea serves no one - not the author,
the production team, the actors, the audience, and most of all,
the production company, whose reputation rests on each succeeding
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita