Guest opinion: OSF directors don't trust Shakespeare

Recently, we had dinner with some friends before we went to the Camelot Theatre. As we talked, they shared that they still go to OSF, but no longer to its productions of Shakespeare’s work. This validated my own judgment that OSF’s stagings of Shakespeare’s plays disappoint far more frequently than do its stagings of other works. And in the last two years, I’ve attended productions worse than disappointing. "1 Henry IV" and "Timon of Athens" were terrible.

The OSF actors are almost uniformly strong, and the organization has the capacity to add wonderful production values — scenery, costuming, lighting, sound. So what’s the problem? The main problem, I’ve come to think, is with the directors of the Shakespeare plays. And their main problem is that they don’t trust Shakespeare. A lesser problem is that OSF sometimes sacrifices the plays to its otherwise admirable agenda of inclusivity.

Both these problems contributed to the failure of "1 Henry IV." Director Lileana Blain-Cruz chose to make Hotspur a female. Not cast a female in the role. There’s nothing new about that; and female characters assume male personae for a time in three of the best-loved comedies. No, Blain-Cruz actually re-gendered Hotspur, that personification of medieval machismo whom King Henry mistakenly believes would make a finer king than Hal, and thus a preferable son.

What could be the payoff from this outlandish decision, which constantly vexes the use of the pronouns by which others refer to Hotspur, and also distracts from the unexpectedly genuine affection that exists between Hotspur and his wife, so striking a contrast to the self-serving and manipulative relationships in Henry’s court and Falstaff’s tavern?

Leaving aside whatever Blain-Cruz might have intended, it allowed the staging of a lesbian relationship between Hotspur and Kate. Score one for OSF. Never mind that the night I attended, the small theater where it played was not sold out and that it was noticeably emptier after intermission.

During Shakespeare’s theatrical career (c. 1590-1612), the acting companies permanently resident in London had no directors; they were actor-led. Two of the three companies, Shakespeare’s included, were remarkably stable, since the eight to ten principal actors were shareholders and they made a lot of money. So the companies were able to work out their productions as an ensemble. When his own plays were staged, probably Shakespeare had a special say. Nonetheless, the primary approach seems to have been for the actors to work up their own parts, getting the most they could out of their lines.

If only contemporary directors would confine their preparations to concentrating intensely on the script. That’s what a symphony director does as s/he prepares. What distinguishes one performance of a classic from another is the intelligence and feeling in the reading of each movement, each passage, each phrase, not some gimmick to make a classic “fresh” or “relevant.” Can one imagine Otto Klemperer performing Beethoven’s Third by arranging for the tympani to be played by a topless female?

If that analogy seems far-fetched, consider director Amanda Dehnert’s staging of the initial banquet scene in Timon. Rather than an agape, the love feast Timon intends, she gives us an orgy complete with prostitutes (mannequins, thank God) who are raped and mutilated as frenetic music plays.

In such a context, Timon’s declaration of his extraordinary vision of human community is utterly lost: “We are born to do benefits; and what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends? O, what a precious comfort ‘tis to have so many like brothers commanding one another’s fortunes!” So how could those who attended OSF’s production understand, much less share, the utter despair of human goodness into which the revelation of his friends’ gross materialism plunges Timon?

I’m not arguing here for trying to replicate the original stagings. We have insufficient knowledge to do that even were it desirable. Rather, I’m contending that some of OSF’s Shakespeare directors are making decisions, not to serve the texts, but to sex up their stagings from the misguided notion that they would otherwise bore us, and that OSF’s distinction as a Shakespeare company is thereby being subverted. Its triumphs are increasingly confined to the other plays it offers.

— Herbert Rothschild was a professor of English literature with a scholarly focus on Shakespeare and the English Renaissance.

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