Who would have thought that Tom Stopppard's screenplay for Shakespeare In Love and Sam Shepard's True West might make for comfy theatrical bedfellows? That's precisely the partnership that Aoise Stratford and Conal Condren create in Will and the Ghost. This one-act centers on a certain emerging young playwright named Will Shakespeare. No, this is not the real writer in any documentary sense-or even a "loosely inspired by actual events" sense; instead we get (as Joseph Fiennes enacted on screen) a riff on some recognizable Shakespearean niceties, a flight of fantasy which imagines how some of our favorite dramas might have been inspired in some Elizabethan parallel universe. Stratford and Conden's version of Shakespeare stumbles out of a London pub to be mugged and stabbed in a back-alley. The bleeding Bard is saved by a mysterious passerby known only as The Ghost, who happens to be a struggling actor specializing in the supernatural and with an appreciation for the outlandish and mysterious in life. As compensation for his heroics, The Ghost demands a new play in line with his aesthetic tastes and professional prospects, expressing his distaste for this dramatist's output of overblown historical tragedies and trite pleasantries like The Comedy of Errors. Will is reluctant, but the Ghost refuses to take "nay" for an answer; so (like Shepard's antagonistic brothers Lee and Austin), they write together through one long and hostile night of captivity. Thus, the dramatic seeds for works like Macbeth, Hamlet and The Winter's Tale are sown.
This script fuses Elizabethan parlance together with more contemporary conversational English into a stage language that was surprisingly natural and effortless as it tripped across the tongues of these players. Eric Atheide, looking not a whit like the familiar likenesses of Shakespeare, held his mirror up to nature with an engaging mixture of intellectual energy and word-weary fatigue. Greg Sims, on the other hand, played the torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of The Ghost's passions to excess; his high-volume outbursts needed some smoother and more temperate shadings. Christian Ely's direction struck a nice balance between the surface of Shakespearean puns and the escalating tensions of the psychological war over words. But woe alas, with no designers listed, the olde-style set dressing (quill pens and candlesticks) clashed verily with the modern clothes (khaki pants and a slick leather coat).
As for that thing the play, its constant references to things Shakespearean were a mixed bounty. Some allusions to language and situation from throughout the canon were clever and surprising; others were less inspired, trying to pass for wit, though in truth the punchline was pre-ordained. (Hmm, we need a foreign country for this tragedy of Prince Hamlet. Let's spin this globe and watch it land randomly on ... Denmark! Perfect!) But beyond the winks and nudges of its surface, this drama's real strength lay in its awareness of one inspiring truth of the early Renaissance. Shakespeare's age was a time when the theater, and the ways it organized and reflected the universe, actually mattered outside of the theater. Imagine that.
Also featuring: Matt Yeager.
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Copyright 2002 Jonathan Shandell