Encore Michigan

‘Taking Shakespeare’ to a new level at Williamston

Review May 30, 2017 Bridgette Redman

WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–Things are never as simple as they first appear, nor are they as insurmountable as they sometimes otherwise appear.

At Williamston Theatre, Taking Shakespeare works because all the important elements are present. It’s almost as if they took a laundry list and started checking off boxes:

  • Intelligent, highly textured script? Check.
  • Relatable characters who are highly flawed but still likeable? Check.
  • Direction that raises the stakes and expertly manages the tempo and emotional intensities? Check.
  • Superb acting from a pair of highly talented professionals? Check.
  • A set that is functional and helps to illustrate the mental mind set of the characters? Check.
  • Props that make the set look lived in while providing even more clues to who the characters are and what is happening in the story? Check.
  • Simple costuming that doesn’t steal focus but is highly functional? Check.

Opening night rightfully earned a standing ovation, one that recognized work that was outstanding in all aspects.

Taking Shakespeare is a meaty script, but one that is still highly accessible. John Murrell’s story is making its Michigan debut. It’s a two-hander script, one in which two highly different personalities attempt to connect over the work of William Shakespeare. Michael Lopetrone plays Murph, an indifferent student who at 24 is in his first year in college. His mother is a dean at the university and is insisting he get tutoring so he can become more of a scholar. His would-be tutor is Prof, played by Terry Heck. She is skeptical that he will be able to grasp the work, but agrees to take him on anyway. Together, they delve into the work of Othello.

Now, you don’t have to be a fan of Shakespeare to enjoy this show. It certainly helps if you know the story of Othello, but it isn’t critical. Murrell provides you with everything you need to know. In fact, if you’ve never really been into the Bard’s work and have wondered why people get excited about him, this might be the play to see. While being a thoroughly modern work, it gives great insight into why people are passionate about Shakespeare and the kind of things that can be found in his work.

Like Shakespeare’s plays themselves, Taking Shakespeare doesn’t give any easy answers. There are plenty of questions you will have to answer for yourself. The seeds of the answers are in the text, but you’ll have to water and harvest them yourself.

In this, Mary Job’s direction demonstrates a deep understanding of the script and what it is trying to do. She recognizes the tempo and melody of the script and conducts her actors accordingly. She provides plenty of time for the belly laughs of the audience without ever sacrificing timing or pacing.

Forget everything else you’ve seen Heck do (and her portfolio is substantial). She immerses herself in the role of Prof and completely sells this middle aged, anti-social, agitated scholar who is far more comfortable with her books than with her students. She’s a complex woman who defies stereotypes in her search for where she belongs and who she is. And watching Heck perform scenes from Othello makes one long to see her performing the titular character in a full production of the work.

Lopetrone has no easy task to match the talent and skill of Heck, but he is more than up for the job. It would be easy for outsiders, or even those as close to him as his mother, to label him as a slacker. What he’s really looking for, though, is a connection, something that sparks his passion and gives him a reason to get involved. Murph is in many ways Prof’s opposite—in age, interests, intellect, even their tastes in beverages and music. Lopetrone illustrates those differences in the way he talks and the way he carries himself–even his interactions with the furniture opening a window into his personality and approach to life.

Together the two turn their discords into tight, complex melodies whose harmonies reveal that each of them has a rich song that is uniquely their own and far more intertwined than they first would be willing to admit. They both have a journey to make and they find a road map in Shakespeare’s text and the way they both approach it. And part of the beauty of Murrell’s script is that they both find what they need in the same text even when what they need is different from each other. Prof even tells Murph that there are some things he won’t understand until later and that he won’t like it when he does, but will be glad he has the understanding.

Stephanie Din fills Jeromy Hopgood’s set with piles of books and a working coffee maker that always has coffee in different stages of preparation. Together they paint a picture of the Prof’s mental and physical landscape into which Murph intrudes and eventually blends in with.

It would be easy to overlook Karen Kangas-Preston’s costuming because it is very utilitarian—seemingly pulled from anyone’s closet for a simple, modern look. Yet, there are all sorts of little touches that contribute to the storytelling. Prof insists that Murph always remove his shoes and Kangas-Preston provides him with pairs that are easy enough to remove that the action doesn’t detract from the pacing of the play. She also gives the Prof several costume changes that subtly reveal her story.

On its surface, Taking Shakespeare might appear to be a pretty standard offering, but it doesn’t take long for this cast and crew to reveal the script’s rich palette of colors. The writing is witty and intelligent, and highly nuanced while the acting and directing plumbs the depth of the text in moving performances that are emotional and commanding.

Treat yourself to Taking Shakespeare, whether you have an interest in Shakespeare or not, it is a show about finding yourself and being what you want to be regardless of what others want you to be. It is highly entertaining and filled with laughs but still manages to give you plenty to chew on.

Click here for show days, time and ticket details.

Week of 2/6/2023

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