Shakespeare & Company could title the second half of their summer season as the "All You Need Is Love" trilogy. From their namesake's "As You Like It" to the contemporaneous "Heisenberg" and "Mothers and Sons," one walks away from these plays feeling gratified that the central characters have lost their inhibitions and given themselves over to what makes the world go round.
But when it comes to theater, William Shakespeare might have a basic disagreement with John Lennon. As the three plays on the company's Lenox campus prove, love gets you only so far. It helps when you also have Will's poetic command of the language, deep psychological and political insight, a symphonic story arc and a wit that glows no dimmer with time. "As You Like It" has all of that with plenty to spare. Simon Stephens' "Heisenberg" and Terrence McNally's "Mothers and Sons" have enough of the above to make them enjoyable nights out, though they could both use more intellectual sizzle to go with the emotional steak. But, if theater be the food of love, play on.
'As You Like It' | Through Sept. 2 | Roman Garden Theatre
Much to his credit, artistic director Allyn Burrows has gotten the main company back outside, though into a much smaller space than their original digs at The Mount, Edith Wharton's place in Lenox. The former Actors' Shakespeare Project artistic director also enlisted the services of several of Boston's most accomplished actors, such as Aimee Doherty, who plays the revolutionary Rosalind, the woman who dons men's clothes to give her character a taste of gender equality. Burrows, who directed, moves the action to the Roaring '20s to put a sense of change in the air.
The company stays true to its heritage of speaking with one's natural voice. When Rosalind's posse flees from the city to meet with their more earthy country cousins, there are a variety of acting styles and accents, all mixed together to produce a satisfying hodgepodge of lovers, both real and wannabe. It is more than Anglophilia that puts Nigel Gore at the head of the class here. The company veteran speaks Elizabethan verse as if it were written today, his voice loses no power when he's not facing you (it's played in the round) and his portrayals are magisterial, whether it was Prospero last year or the two dukes this year. The bad duke banishes Rosalind, the good one embraces her and he's equally convincing as both.
If the younger members of the cast aren't as comfortable as Gore in their Shakespearean skin, they still give a winning account of their characters. Doherty really shines when she takes to the forest pretending to be a man. Ella Loudon and Gregory Boover all but steal the show as the native Ardenites Phoebe and Silvius, the wooed and wooer respectively. Phoebe, of course, falls for Rosalind. You probably know the rest, even if you haven't seen it.
'Heisenberg' | Through Sept. 2 | Tina Packer Playhouse
There’s so much that I don’t like about "Heisenberg," that I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed it. The play is a classic two-hander by Simon Stephens, who adapted “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” into the play that won a gazillion awards in England and America. In this play, a young, flaky woman, transplanted from New Jersey, meets a much older erudite butcher, transplanted from Ireland, in not-so-merry old England.
Tired tropes ensue. Can beautiful, quirky, working-class woman, armed with a highly exaggerated life force (and in this production a highly exaggerated and unearthly accent), bring 75-year-old butcher, armed only with wit and stoicism, out of his shell and out of the loneliness he has repressed for practically all of his life? This sentimentalization of the working class is something that British writers of the 20th and 21st century usually avoid, whether it’s novelist Ruth Rendell, satirist Sacha Baron Cohen or playwrights Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard. The Brits usually leave it to rich American writers, particularly screenwriters, to peddle in mawkish fantasies that the poor are more connected to their feelings than anyone else.
And yet, “Heisenberg” is a likable play. Stephens is a very good writer and if the setup of the play is cliché
d, the execution is engaging. Not every “Pretty Woman” or “Trading Places” is fueled by the Heisenberg Principle, in which watching something closely doesn’t allow you to see where it’s going.
Still, this is no “Copenhagen,” which made Heisenberg’s theories of uncertainty central to the play — in fact, central to the future of the world. What really makes this play enjoyable is that the actors, Tamara Hickey and Malcolm Ingram, and director Tina Packer, are so invested in the characters and in the silences between the words. Hickey and Ingram have both hidden their desperation beneath their aforementioned veneers of flakiness and stoicism. And the two charismatic actors, under Packer’s always thoughtful direction, make us believe that their future is riding on the decisions they make. For the future of the world, or anything of higher import, look elsewhere.
'Mothers and Sons' | Through Sept. 9 | Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
Last year Annette Miller and her S&C cohorts convinced me that Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” was a much better play than I had previously given it credit for. This year they convinced me that Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” was not as dull a play as I thought it was when SpeakEasy Stage Company staged it a few years ago.
One thing that hasn’t changed is how reliably excellent an actor Miller has become. And she has someone who can go head to head with her in Bill Mootos, another fine Boston actor. Miller’s character, Katharine, has dropped in on Cal, played by Mootos, ostensibly to give him the diary of her son and his ex-lover, Andre, who had died of AIDS at 29, about 15 years previously. Cal has now married and the two men have a son.
The play is full of Katharine’s recriminations. She can’t accept the normalization of homosexuality. Why does Cal get to have another man in her life while she can never have another son? For his part, Cal beats her up verbally because of her long-standing distaste, if not disgust, for gay men.
This all seemed very whiny and agenda-driven in Boston, but Miller and Mootos are so good together that they bring out the humor and passion in McNally’s writing instead of his battle with past personal and political demons. Even at that, Katharine’s visit to Cal’s stylish Manhattan apartment, like the play itself, overstays its welcome. At 90 minutes it should have been 60.
Still, I’m glad I saw it again and that Shakespeare & Company has added another talented director to its midst in James Warwick. If "Heisenberg" and "Mothers and Sons," aren't in Shakespeare's class, Strindberg's "Creditors" earlier in the season certainly was, and still to come is Taylor Mac's "Hir" for the fall season. All in all, Burrows is keeping Shakespeare in interesting company on their three stages.