WELLFLEET -- Claire Danes pouts. Mary Pickford winks. Sarah Bernhardt preens. And Eva Le Gallienne shows them all how it should be done.
These actresses and more, from Ellen Terry to Elizabeth Taylor, strut and fret upon the stage in one Shakespearean monologue after another, all channeled by one gifted interpreter, Rebekah Maggor. In a thoroughly researched and meticulously executed performance, Maggor crafts an evening of ``Shakespeare's Actresses in America" that tells us more about the history of classical performance than a whole semester's worth of lectures could.
This simply staged monologue consists of a series of speeches from Shakespeare plays, performed in the styles of many eras and stitched together by Maggor's narration in the persona of 20th-century director Margaret Webster. Maggor first presented it in January at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre. Onstage at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Maggor jokes between speeches by Julia and Portia, ``in Cambridge there was a very edgy scene here, with nudity. We cut it. It's not appropriate for Wellfleet."
So you'll have to see Wellfleet's other current offering, ``Red Light Winter," for nudity and sex. But Maggor offers quieter, more cerebral rewards: the fascination of watching wildly various interpretations of a single speech, the pleasure of seeing a well-trained actress' physical and vocal techniques deployed with precision and taste, and the deepened understanding that every age has its own ``real" Shakespeare.
Danes's ``natural" interpretation, for example, reveals itself as just one more artifice of style when sandwiched between Le Gallienne's and Terry's -- and not a particularly interesting one, at that. In Maggor's interpretation, Danes slouches and drawls like a spoiled American teenager; it's no more appealing onstage than it is at the mall. But it is also, clearly, a considered performance, not just a girl talking.
As Maggor, switching deftly into the crisp British tones of narrator Webster, drily notes, ``Miss Danes speaks without a trace of the traditional techniques." But she also points out that the 1996 film starring Danes, Baz Luhrmann's ``Romeo + Juliet," drew crowds with a time-honored technique: selling Shakespeare with stars and current music. Rather than dismissing the film as mass trash, Maggor wisely connects it with 19th-century Bardomania, which sent touring companies around the United States to present Shakespeare as just one part of an evening's popular entertainment.
It's worth trying to imagine yourself in such an audience, watching Julia Marlowe as she trills her R's and rounds her O's so thoroughly that ``Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Rrrrohhmeohhh" seems to stretch on forever. The tremulous style sounds almost laughable today, except that it does invest each word with an emotional force you simply can't get from a flat suburban voice.
The middle path, as often happens, comes off best: Le Gallienne, whose heyday followed Marlowe's and preceded Danes's, strikes a perfect balance between high drama and real feeling, and Maggor makes her rendering of both Juliet's balcony scene and Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene feel powerful and true.
At times this 70-minute performance can tilt a bit too far toward the academic. At its high points, though, it is what Maggor wants it to be: an accessible, intelligent, and utterly transfixing evocation of the performers who, in age after age of changing fashion, have breathed fresh life into the ageless work of a master.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.