This summer, Shakespeare & Company are staging more actual Shakespeares than usual, including all three of the mainstage productions and one in the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre that's usually home to contemporary work. Now playing are two of the great title-character tragedies, one of the Bard's "problem plays" and a frolicsome comedy that I'm betting will be the hit of the season.
Hamlet and Othello are both hits of past S&Co seasons, revived both to exploit their previous success and, in these perilous days, to save the cost of mounting original productions. There are a few cast changes in each one, and both are performed by stripped-down companies of less than a dozen, but the core players are the same and the physical productions are largely unchanged.
I haven't seen Hamlet this summer, but I caught it when it first played in 2006 and again last fall at the UMass Fine Arts Center on a national tour. I thought it an intriguing and unorthodox staging, with exhilarating passages that outweighed some conceptual touches that didn't quite pay off, including the "hook" of casting the troupe's founder and guiding spirit, Tina Packer, as Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, and her real-life son, Jason Asprey, as the prince.
Though I found Packer's Gertrude a bit fuzzy, Asprey was a fiery, impatient Hamlet whose soliloquies were not brooding contemplations but angry outbursts of frustration at his own indecision. Nigel Gore's effective King Claudius was a jovial and wily operator who became more tight-lipped as he sensed Hamlet's tardy revenge circling toward him.
If Hamlet is hesitant and irresolute, Othello is guilty of too-willing credence and rash action. The brave soldier and decisive general falls prey to "the green-eyed monster" of jealousy, pricked to suspicion and goaded into murder by his lieutenant, "honest" Iago, who is propelled by his own jealousies. Michael Hammond's exquisite Iago is a subtle monster, a cool, smiling sociopath who, like a sleight-of-hand artist, manipulates his human objects at will.
Othello is, of course, about racism, but in Tony Simotes' tightrope-taut production it's also about class. The subtitle is "The Moor of Venice," but Othello isn't of Venice. He's an outsider from a different continent and culture, who has not only ascended the Venetian military hierarchy but also wooed and married a rich white man's daughter. In John Douglas Thompson's astounding performance, it's not just the over-enunciated, African-inflected speech that sets Othello apart. As befits the overachiever-by-necessity, he's more dignified and noble than the local aristocrats. As Iago undermines Othello's confidence in his wife, Desdemona, and in his own judgment, that nobility collapses; Thompson's body deflates and his confident gaze turns murky. It's a thrilling, heartbreaking performance.
And some serious comedy
Though Twelfth Night doesn't officially join the summer repertoire till this weekend, at the first preview all the elements were firmly, triumphantly, in place. Director Jonathan Croy is a master of physical comedy, so I was expecting side-splitting sight gags, and I wasn't disappointed. But I was amazed at how much further he takes this daring, marvelously detailed production. He's not afraid to let serious moments interrupt the mayhem, and he's made the court jester Feste (Robert Biggs) into a mordant philosopher who might be a cousin of Lear's tragic Fool. These moments give a bittersweet edge to the proceedings, but they're no downer—they make everything more human.
Almost everyone in Twelfth Night is also in either Othello or Hamlet, and it's fun to watch them kicking loose in this comedy of misdirected love, practical jokes, cross-dressing and mistaken identities. Hamlet's Ophelia and Othello's Desdemona are Olivia and Viola, two thirds of the play's mismatched love triangle, Elizabeth Raetz now the stern countess and Merritt Janson achingly bewildered as the girl dressed up as a boy who's in love with the man who's in love with the woman who's in love with her. (Got that?)
Nigel Gore throws off Claudius's usurped crown and grabs a bottle of sack as the disreputable Sir Toby Belch, author of midnight revels and unapologetic farts. Croy nicely underlines the affection and attraction between Toby and Maria, his partner in chicanery, played with a sly dignity by Corinna May. Duane Allen Robinson is dashing and lovestruck as Duke Orsino, the third point of the triangle; Ken Cheeseman uses his gawky height to advantage as the supercilious Malvolio; and Ryan Winkles makes a hilariously clueless Andrew Aguecheek.
Measure for Measure is one of the Shakespeare plays that's classed as a comedy despite its sober themes, because the plot resolves without piles of bodies onstage. This one reaches into questions of morality and hypocrisy, loyalty and honor, with a central dilemma that we moderns are tempted to find ludicrous. It revolves around Angelo, a starchy puritan who condemns young Claudio to death for "fornication" but offers to spare his life in exchange for the virginity of his beautiful sister, Isabella. Meanwhile, Angelo's boss, the Duke of Vienna, disguised as a monk, observes this injustice and concocts a snare to fit the crime.
The performers are young professionals in the company's Performance Intern Program. Their director, Dave Demke, has put a lively and imaginative production on the bare Bernstein stage, with the 10-member ensemble playing twice that many parts. The performance sags, though, because two of the leads just aren't up to the demands of their roles. As Angelo, "whose blood is very snow broth," Gabriel Portuondo is more wood than ice—pinched and uptight, to be sure, but never getting much beyond that posture. Emily Hagburg puts plenty of passion into Isabella, but it seems forced, more a studied exercise than natural expression.
By contrast, Poornima Kirby brings a world of warmth and poise to her small role as Angelo's spurned fiancee. In the low-comedy subplot about the city's bawdyhouses, Aaron Shariff, Nathan Wolfe Coleman and Emily Karol are particularly amusing. But they're all outclassed by Tom O'Keefe, who gives a subtle, inventive performance as the Duke. As these young actors continue their careers, he's the one to watch.
Shakespeare & Company: performances in repertory through Sept. 6, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 637-3353, http://www.shakespeare.org.