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Chicago by John Olson

Being Shakespeare
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Hairspray, Fish Men and The March

Being Shakespeare
Simon Callow
Remember your favorite college professor? The one whose lectures were given with such showmanship and obvious passion for the material that they were performances rather than mere lectures? Then imagine, if you will, that the professor of your Shakespeare course is one of the world's most esteemed interpreters of the Bard's work and you'll have a good picture of Simon Callow's performance of Being Shakespeare. This one-man play—both a biography and retrospective of the playwright's major works—was written by Jonathan Bate, but is performed by Callow with such affection that you would swear it was his work. Callow is not in character as Shakespeare, but narrates the story of Shakespeare's life and career, using the "Seven Stages of Man" speech from As You Like It as an outline. Along the way, he performs excerpts from the Bard's plays and sonnets, mostly in the context of the periods of Shakespeare's life in which he wrote the selections.

By the end of the nearly two hour show (which includes a 20-minute intermission), we're given an overview that will be mostly familiar to many theatergoers but is worthwhile for Callow's superb readings of Shakespeare's works and for a number of the biographical moments. Callow performs many parts, from Juliet to Hamlet, Macbeth, Falstaff and Henry IV—and all with such skill and humor that the characters are entertaining and accessible, with the Elizabethan language no barrier to the enjoyment of the texts whatsoever. He handles all these diverse characters with equal skill—even Juliet is performed without irony. This Shakespeare sampler from the actor we may know only for his roles in films including A Room With a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shakespeare in Love leaves us wanting to see him in a full production of a Shakespeare play.

The biographical segments, though they include familiar facts from the few that are actually known about the writer's life, have some wonderful moments. Bate's description of Shakespeare's arrival in London and the beginnings of his theatrical career there are vivid. They give us not only a sense of how the small-town boy must have felt when first exposed to the metropolis of London, but also the wonderment of seeing the vast theater scene of the city, with individual audiences as large as the entire population of his Stratford-on-Avon home. There are also touching moments recounting the loss of his only son and the solitude of his later life back in Stratford after his writing career was in decline.

But if Callow deserves the title of "professor of the year," it must be noted that the play he performs offers production values that are barely beyond those of a lecture hall, though thankfully the seats at the Broadway Playhouse are far cushier. The stage is nearly bare, save for a raised platform stage right, with a globe and several books sitting on it. Stage left, we have two trees and four chairs, used effectively in places. And there's a neat effect in Bruno Poet's lighting design when the stage goes all blood red during a reading from Macbeth. For the most part, though, it's all up to Callow and the audience's willingness to listen actively.

Under the direction of Tom Cairns, who also designed the set, Callow keeps moving about with unflagging energy that should be enough to keep the audience engaged. Still, one has to wonder if the use of projections might have not only helped the audience stay focused but added to the communication of the story and settings. Being Shakespeare in structure bears resemblance to the one-man biographical plays by Hershey Felder, interspersing personal history with samples of the artists' work—and it could benefit from adopting Felder's effective use of projections to show the real-life people and locations in his stories. As it is, it feels a little thin visually, and maybe a bit overpriced for a piece with the production values of a lecture hall. Then again, given the cost of college tuition these days, $70 for a lecture as engrossing as this one is may be a pretty good value.

Being Shakespeare will be performed through April 29, 2012, at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com or www.broadwayinchicago.com.


Photo: André Penteado

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-- John Olson



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