Modernized morality tale perhaps - but probably not - co-authored by Shakespeare plays like a collection of Shakespearean scenes rather than a cohesive, self-contained drama. A Hamlet-like hero rebelling against a usurping king is also Romeo-like in a lovers' suicide pact. Credit to strong direction and an energetic cast for flashes of drama and overall entertainment value.
Directed by Kate Buckley. Set by Joseph Tilford. Lights by Charles Jolls. Costumes by Kristine Knanishu. Sound by Barry Funderburg.
Steve Pickering (The Tyrant), Kevin Theis (Govianus), Michelle Graff (The Lady), Jeffrey Bunn (Helvetius), Ron Rains (Memphonius), Robert Chaviano (Sophonirus), Karen Raymore (The Wife), Anselmus (Nathan Vogt), Joseph Wycoff (Votarius), Meredith Mapel (Leonella), William Sidney Parker (Bellarius).
The playbill for The Next Theatre Company's production of Cardenio, or The Second Maiden's Tragedy intriguingly - and quite accurately - credits the play's writing as "Author Unknown." The authorship debate over this script is a relatively new phenomenon, with tradition giving credit to Thomas Middleton. The contention that Shakespeare was at least a co-author of Cardenio was renewed in 1994 by Charles Hamilton. Hamilton's argument is that there indeed exists a "lost" Shakespeare-and-Fletcher collaboration referred to in 1613 as "Cardenno" (sic), and the anonymous, handwritten version of the play submitted to the royal censor in 1611 bears a decided similarity to the handwriting of William Shakespeare's personal will. The censor, Sir George Buc, attached the "second maiden" sub-title because of the play's thematic similarity to a recent work by Beaumont and Fletcher, thereby diverting attention from Shakespearean authorship.
Next Theatre, much to their credit, presents this rarely seen Jacobean play - in only its second full American production - without the benefit of much scholarship and completely unedited and unrevised. This artistic gamble, especially within the confines of a limited budget, presents considerable risk that the company tackles - and conquers - with technical professionalism and on-stage excitement.
The set, a gloomy and sepulchral courtyard, is lit in tones of burnt orange and muted yellow, and remains for the most part static, save for a series of sliding upstage gates. This elegant simplicity establishes a moody creepiness, replete with torches, elongated shadows and shifting silhouettes. The atmosphere transfers well when the play's action shifts from the sanctuary of a church to the seclusion of Anselmus' home, then to an underground crypt, and finally to the bowels of a prison house. The sound design also lends to the production's lurid tone with its moody effects: amplifications of underground water-drips punctuate a chilling scene next to the Lady's corpse, and intrusive knocking accelerates Govianus' decision-making in a Macbeth-like moment.
The young cast approaches their roles with a zeal that infuses the dramatic situations with passion. The actors move with quick efficiency and articulate their lines with precise confidence. They are clad almost entirely in black, the women in sleekly sophisticated and contemporary gowns and the men in formal suits or militaristic uniforms. Most characters are only thinly drawn and unnamed types - the Tyrant, the Wife, the Lady - with the aptly named hero Govianus waging physical and emotional battle against the Tyrant.
This absence of depth in the characterizations represents a compelling reason for the opinion that this play was not written by a mature William Shakespeare: the psychopathic Tyrant is perhaps the only fully realized character, and for the most part this is due to the strength of performance and to Kate Buckley's astute directorial choices.
A power-hungry despot with a grotesque and self-absorbed obsession for the Lady, the character exhibits all the expected brutality and obstinacy. But there are intriguing depths of horror - revealed by the Tyrant with bristles of confusion and sudden constrictions of sorrow - along with a sputtering self-loathing in his delivery of lines and in his body language that become fascinating as the drama unfolds. In one scene, seated in a chair facing away from the audience, the Tyrant writhes and contorts with the depravity of his own helpless actions. The remaining characters, although played well, in comparison seem stock types from a Shakespearean character book: the lascivious and treacherous handmaid, the disapproving father, the jealous husband.
Plot elements are typically Jacobean and audience-pleasing in their innate sensationalism and gratuity: there is rebellion and adultery, suicide and necrophilia. But in another, even more convincing argument against authentic Shakespearean authorship, the play's construction strongly resembles a series of simple glosses on established and successful Shakespearean scenes. In fact, Cardenio on paper reads much like a collection of Shakespearean plot devices, an uneasy commingling (by a lesser poet) of the Danish prince with Verona's ill-fated lovers through a plot from one of the problem comedies: as in Hamlet, the rightful heir rebels against the usurping king and, spurred to action by a ghost, murders a king who is unable to rally court support for himself; previously, the wronged prince, in defiance of a disapproving father, enters into a tragic suicide pact - much like Romeo and Juliet - with his forbidden lover, who kills herself when she thinks he has died. In addition, Cardenio pulsates with mischief and conniving, envenomed swords and a plethora of eavesdroppers, and scenes are intertwined with those of a man asked to test the fidelity of a friend's wife, with the "test" resulting tragically in a Hamlet-like familial bloodbath.
Next Theatre breathes an invigorating on-stage originality and urgency into the script's familiarity through Buckley's stately direction and the entire cast's robust approach. For example, the play-opening invasion of the lovers' quiet haven by a sudden infusion of brutal soldiers is clamorous and frightening. Later, as soldiers close in yet again, Govianus and the Lady's desperate embrace carries with it an agonizing urgency, especially due to the chemistry established between the two actors.
Buckley focuses on the play's theme of characters being at war with themselves and with convention, and the choice works well: Govianus and the Lady are young and appealing rebels as well as tragic heroes pitted against the militaristic tyrant.
A familiar subplot is played for humor and consists of a cousin of Govianus struggling with doubts regarding the fidelity of his wife. Again, the familiarity of the situation is redeemed by the energy and the sense of humor of Buckley's ensemble cast. The doubting husband is played with an amusing kind of affected and unsure confidence that gives way to an obtuse disbelief, and the Wife wages a mock-epic "struggle" against her reluctant suitor that brings the production most of its few light and funny moments.
Joseph Wycoff, however, garners the shows biggest laughs as Votarius, the everyman who is asked to seduce his friend's wife, and then must struggle, like the Tyrant, against his own feelings. Wycoff's careful modulation is a study in astute choices, as he resists the request then relents and attempts the seduction half-heartedly and then with true and sudden passion. Votarius becomes figuratively two characters in one, and Wycoff manages both with considerable skill: first the bespectacled and passionless intellectual, then the fiery and forbidden lover who deceives and connives his way through a sequence of events that results in the aforementioned bloodbath.
Cardenio, despite questions regarding its authorship, translates well from Jacobean contrivance and cliché to vigorous contemporary entertainment, although credit must be given to incisive direction, elegant design, and an energetic cast.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.16, No.3, Summer 1998.