By Daniel Skora
No two words ever spoken by an English major can ever be said with such a volatile mix of delight and dread as when their answer to the question of what they might be doing the current semester is “Taking Shakespeare”. Even those familiar with the Bard may cringe in anticipation; for the uninitiated and the unprepared, they might as well be taking a foreign language. Williamston Theatre is presenting “Taking Shakespeare”, a robust piece of thinking person’s theatre that has little to dread and much to delight.
Murph (Michael Lopetrone) is a few years late getting started with his college matriculation. He’s bummed around for a few years lost in the fantasy world of video and could very well find himself flunking out of college if his grades don’t improve. Which is why his mother, who just happens to be the president of the university, has made arrangements for him to be tutored.
That tutor, called Prof in the play (Terry Heck), is an English Lit professor whose specialty is Shakespeare. She’s an uncompromising sort, having grown disgruntled and opinionated because too many of her students have failed to share her enthusiasm for Shakespeare. The fact that she believes other faculty members are incapable of teaching Shakespeare properly hasn’t helped either. After a few moments of getting to know the new student, she thinks he’s yet another one of those slackers and sends him on his way. Yet there’s something persistent about his wanting to have a go at this Shakespeare guy and the play he’s been assigned to read. “Othello” is Prof’s favorite play. If Murph doesn’t work out, at least the time will have been spent with a play she views as an old friend. Murph is already out the door when she calls him back and schedules a follow up appointment.
Playwright John Murrell’s script never goes overboard on plot, but he’s more than compensated for that by creating two compelling characters and a heady mix of intellect and emotion. And the 90 minute one-act also has much to comment on about academia, Shakespeare, and the scholarly life. And, of course, there’s the play “Othello”.
Among the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Othello” demands critical thinking. Fortunately, Murph has a mind waiting and wanting to be filled with more than the fantasy that video games have provided him and Prof wastes no time introducing him to the wondrous world Othello. By questioning Murph about what he thinks Shakespeare is saying about his characters and offering some of her own opinions about the text, she stirs a passion and an excitement in Murph that will forge a bond between the two.
Terry Heck turns in a premiere performance as a woman who, sadly, finds more joy and takes greater consolation from the writings of a poet who died 400 years ago than she does from the real world she lives in. Prof gives Heck the opportunity to portray an intelligent contemporary woman (yes, the part of Prof has also been played by a male, but after seeing Ms. Heck do her thing, you’ll remember her performance as the standard by which all subsequent actors you see play the role are judged) as well as do some dramatic readings of lines from the play. Complimenting Heck is a fine performance by Lopetrone, who in addition to serving as foil for the dominant character Prof, must undergo a transformation from a disinterested pupil into an enthused student, which he does nicely.
In a season filled with exceptional productions, Williamston may have saved their best for last. “Taking Shakespeare” is intelligent, entertaining theatre, a drama sprinkled with wit that will rekindle your respect for Shakespeare and one of his grandest achievements. And that wonderful performance by Terry Heck is not to be, or to be not, missed.
“Taking Shakespeare” is a Michigan Premiere. The show is directed by Mary Job. Costumes are by Karen Kangas-Preston, lighting by Heather Brown, and sound by Quintessa Gallinat. Stage manager for the production is Paige Conway.
The play runs through June 18th. Tickets can be purchased by phone Tuesday through Friday from Noon to 6:00p.m., by calling 1.517.655.7469, by visiting the Williamston box office, or ordered online up until 24 hours prior to the performance by going online at www.williamstontheatre.org. Williamston Theatre is located at 122 S. Putnam Road in downtown Williamston. If you’re westward bound on I-96, exit at 117.