Making the grade

A review of “Taking Shakespeare” at Human Race

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: Johanna Leister as Prof and Jon Kovach as Murph in Human Race Theatre Company’s “Taking Shakespeare”; photo: Scott J. Kimmins

We may know grouchy teachers and alienated students in the real world, perhaps none so passionate as the pair in the current HRTC production at the Loft Theatre. Johanna Leister and Jon Kovach under Aaron Vega’s direction have dug deep to understand their characters – Prof, the teacher and Murph, the student.

“Taking Shakespeare,” a two-character play by John Murrell, is all dialogue and brings together two very different worlds. Telephone receiver meets iPhone. The student never achieves the expectations of his mother, the Dean of Humanities (unseen) nor does the committed educator accept the world of academic rules. She’s tasked by the dean to somehow make him quickly able to pass his freshman Shakespeare class, studying the comedies. Instead Prof focuses on “Othello.”

That there is plenty of humor in this play was evident on opening night as laughter rippled the audience at the misunderstandings between generations. Leister absolutely inhabits Prof from her spitfire moments to her wistful and emotionally needy interior. Kovach, who appeared in the Race’s “Band Geeks” said he was destined to play video-gamers. He is most convincing as the very bright, curious but unconventional learner.

She is determined to make him think, not just recite the contents of a black and yellow “CliffsNotes.” They also begin to understand and appreciate each other and perhaps to appreciate and value the unconventional in themselves.

Leister’s characterization has range and depth but is particularly effective when she silently listens, her face convincingly reflecting encouragement and hope. She understands the goal of a good teacher.

Kovach is totally believable as the insecure boy who repeatedly asks, “Are you making fun of me?” He too brings a malleable face, eager, puzzled, questioning and delighted, as he begins to “get it.” When he responds to her request to describe his videogame, “Bandwitch,” his passion is clear.

Both actors do justice to various speeches by “Othello,” Iago and even Emilia. Each has a sterling resume of Shakespearian experience, as does Director Vega. All three are well chosen.

Vega has directed very crisp, rapidly paced movement and interaction between the coffee-obsessed Prof and the diffident student, quite an accomplishment in this odd-couple, word-heavy script.

In a pre-opening interview, Leister talked about the amount of time the Race allows cast and director to delve into motivations of character and develop and understand each. “It’s unique,” she said, “and I think it makes a huge difference to us in a very positive way.”

There are many challenging issues to deal with (or “with which to deal,” as Prof would correct herself): racism, doubt, sadness, anger, hurt, frustration, longing. There are memorable lines: “Thou hast but half the power to do me harm as I have to be hurt;” “She’s as humane as a Dean of Humanities can be.”

The technical designers for this show have made especially outstanding contributions, well worth noting.

The story evolves in five scenes or weekly visits, made clear by Resident Lighting Designer John Rensel’s subtle, but clever work. A shadow from an unseen window moves slowly across the set and the back of the sofa, indicating the passage of time.

All the original incidental music was written and performed by Sound Designer Jay Brunner, setting the scenes between present time, “Othello” time and perhaps an unknown future time. He brands the piece with memorable theme music.

The set, the living room of an old house with a couple of arches, reminiscently gothic, is appropriately low key, although not as worn as it might be. It was designed by Dan Gray and built by Scott J. Kimmins and a talented crew including Eric Moore and Ray Zupp.

The set is cluttered with just the right accumulation of books and papers and well-loved quilts and shawls that further describe an academic’s home. Heather Powell is properties master.

Socks! Wonderful socks. Prof and Murph are dressed casually, but Murph gets to wear a different pair of colorful socks in each scene, quietly establishing a bit of individuality. Prof makes him take his shoes off, allowing the socks to be visible. Janet G. Powell was costume designer, Brandy Simmons did wardrobe; and Christie Peitzmeier is costume shop manager.

Production Stage Manager Kay Carver has handled that responsibility for the HRTC for the past several seasons.

Playwright Murrell migrated from Texas to Canada, has taught and written, acted and premiered this script at the Stratford Festival in 2013. HRTC’s production is his third, the first in the States.

There is a lot to think about and discuss in this show; the role of the educator: is it the quick fix and passing the test or is it having time to absorb and understand difficult ideas? Does Shakespeare have meaning in today’s world? Can we make the effort to understand each other’s defenses as we all struggle to find our true selves?

You don’t have to have a working knowledge of “Othello” to enjoy this show, but it won’t hurt to brush up your Shakespeare a bit.

The show runs through May 3. “While We’re On the Subject,” the free open-forum discussion will be held Sunday, April 26, after the 2 p.m. matinee, probably just after 4 pm.

The Human Race Theatre Company presents “Taking Shakespeare” through Sunday, May 3 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. For tickets and more information, please visit humanracetheatre.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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