Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Taking Shakespeare Review

Stratford Festival 2013
Taking Shakespeare
A Comedy by John Murrell
Studio Theatre
Directed by Diana Leblanc
Running now through September 22
Information and Tickets at

Taking Shakespeare – A Lesson in Great Acting
Rating **** (4 out of four stars)
Reviewed by David Grapes – August 2013

What do you get when you combine John Murrell, one of Canada’s most underrated playwrights (Waiting for the Parade) with Stratford director Diana Leblanc (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and then spice the final mix with the indomitable, pugnacious and certain Canadian national treasure Mary Henry? You get Taking Shakespeare, a nifty little two hander that plays like gangbusters on the intimate Studio Theatre stage.

While the play’s title and its casting choices would lead you to believe that Taking Shakespeare will concentrate its focus and energy on Shakespeare - that is not the case. Although the plot line revolves around a wayward unfocused youth named Murph (Luke Humprey) who must pass a college level Shakespeare class to appease his domineering mother, Shakespeare and his poetry really become a metaphor for how to live ones life.

So in her small flat stacked to the ceiling with books, the Prof (Henry) teaches Murph (Humphrey) about the power and majesty of language and poetry and he teaches her about how to let go of he past and move on to a new beginning.

And while the audience accepts and understands the lessons and emotional journey that each character takes, for us it is also about taking an acting lesson ourselves. Watching Martha Henry recite and analyze passages of Shakespeare from the very characters that many of us in the audience have seen her so beautifully interpret over her 39 years on the Festival’s many stags is nothing short of being in audience heaven. Murrell concentrates much of his play’s dialogue on Othello. And how fortunate is it that Artistic Director Cimolino has produced an excellent production of Othello in the adjacent Avon Theatre. Now that folks is savvy marketing!

Yes, the play also discusses, video games, academic tenure issues, unrealistic parental expectations and intellectual ambition but Taking Shakespeare also gives us Henry at the peak of her intellectual powers reciting many of the Bard’s most thrilling passages. And we like Murph can’t take our eyes off of Henry or leave until the lesson has ended.

Humprey (now in his third season) also does a fine job in his own right as he grows from a fledgling student barely able to get out the words on the page in act one to a confident reader now able to understand the beauty and majesty of Shakespeare’s language in the play’s second half.

But this is Henry’s play and it is her journey that rivets us and holds the almost non-existent plot line together. There is just something special about watching an actress of Henry’s age and experience still putting herself out there in front of an audience every night. This mix of the past and present is also was makes Stratford such a unique theatre organization and a Canadian national treasure.

Due to the limited seating in the Studio Theatre tickets for Taking Shakespeare have been difficult to come by since the play opened. However, if you can find one, you will not be disappointed!

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