CAMBRIDGE - A play written by a leading Shakespeare scholar and a noted playwright, and said to be inspired by a lost work of Shakespeare himself, is bound to attract a lot of excitement in academic and theatrical circles alike. And so it is with "Cardenio," which opened Wednesday at the American Repertory Theatre. Hugely anticipated, it is also, I am very sorry to say, hugely disappointing.
"Cardenio" the original is an interesting little mystery in its own right: Recorded as a play by Shakespeare and his occasional collaborator John Fletcher that was performed twice in 1613, it then vanished; no script was ever published among Shakespeare's works. One Lewis Theobald then produced, in 1728, a play he called "Double Falsehood," which he claimed was based on the original manuscript of "Cardenio." But he never brought forth this manuscript, instead allegedly storing it in a Covent Garden library that later burned down, and so "Cardenio" has remained nothing more than a title and the hint of a plot, drawn from an episode in Cervantes's "Don Quixote."
All this intrigue and cross-pollination appealed strongly to Stephen Greenblatt, the Harvard Shakespearean, and Charles Mee, the playwright, whose work in different ways has explored creativity, appropriation, and cultural influences on individual works of art. So when the two men had a chance to work together, a reimagining of "Cardenio" seemed like a natural: a chance to explore not only ideas about Shakespeare and playmaking, but also the invention of a "Shakespearean" play as it might have been written if Shakespeare had lived at the turn of the 21st century instead of the 17th.
So far, so good. The two men, buoyed by a large grant Greenblatt had received, retreated to a rented farmhouse in Umbria to develop their play - Italy being not only the setting of some of Shakespeare's most delectable romantic comedies, but also the idyllic site where Mee and Greenblatt had first crossed paths, on overlapping residencies at the academic retreat Bellagio.
By all indications, they had a lovely time in Umbria: the wine, the food, the song, the light, the art, the hills! We know this because their "Cardenio" is set in a lovely version of their rented farmhouse, complete with aforesaid wine, food, song, etc., and because their characters (using the term loosely) wax rhapsodic in assorted ways over all these beauties. But, being good modern thinkers, the playwrights mock their Italianate raptures even as they're indulging in them, just as they playfully belittle the impossibility and foolishness of re-creating a Shakespeare play even as they persist in doing it.
And what comes out of all these great theories and great amusements, unfortunately, is simply not theatrical enough, not linguistically rich enough, not humane enough, and not generous enough to earn the cachet it claims by its association with Shakespeare. Over two acts that, with intermission, stretch close to three hours, this "Cardenio," the tale of a modern wedding party interrupted by a staging of Shakespeare's lost play, tries the patience of its audience in ways that no journeyman of the Elizabethan stage, never mind Shakespeare, would dare.
Director Les Waters applies a variety of remedies - dance interludes, operatically delivered arias, farcically slamming doors, and broad physical comedy pushed beyond Stooge level - and the actors generally give the lines everything they've got. But they just don't get enough substance, character development, or coherent philosophy to work with.
For starters, in trying to create a "modern" Shakespeare, Greenblatt and Mee have robbed themselves of one of their model's greatest tools: the richness and poetry of his language. But surely, in abandoning iambic pentameter (except for a few snatches of the play-within-a-play that's staged for, and by, their modern-day revelers), they did not also have to abandon any attempt at interesting, lyrical, or imaginative speech. So why do their characters, without exception, express themselves in flat, repetitive, and banal terms?
Here's a sample, in the free-verse-ish typography of the script that may have led people to believe they were reading poetry instead of chopped prose:
"A person should never be ashamed of love
however it may have come to them
whatever promises they've had to break
whatever things they've done that they wish they hadn't
when a person finds the love
they believe will be their lifelong love
the choice is no longer theirs."
Leaving aside the dubious grammar and the even more dubious reasoning here, it's not just the language that falls short. It's the ideas and feelings that the words express, the characters who say them, and the spirit that animates the whole enterprise - or, more precisely, fails to animate it. Annie Smart's stone-farmhouse set, though its lurid sky seems more "South Pacific" than southern Europe, is the gentlest and most luminous presence onstage. The humans who people it, in contrast, are implausible, uninteresting, and one-dimensional.
From the groom whose paranoia leads him to have his best man test his wife's fidelity, to the wacky-pathetic actor parents who show up unexpectedly to stage the play, to the bad fairy of a sister who seems to exist only to say nasty things that are then shouted down, they are all about as far from Shakespearean characters as they can be. It is, barely, possible that this is the playwrights' intent: that they want us to see that, given how neurotic and self-absorbed and materialistic our culture is, even Shakespeare himself could not have created real humans in such a setting.
If that's the point, so noted. But it's also worth noting that Shakespeare's time also featured some fairly monstrous behavior, and that he drew from it to create unforgettable characters and vivid plots. He did not foist tedious caricatures on a fine company of actors; he did not mistake self-indulgent musings, soliloquies about vibrators or Italian wines, and inside jokes for an engaging story; he did not amuse himself at the expense of his audience.
He did not, in short, write anything like this "Cardenio." And don't let anyone tell you he did.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.