High marks

Teaching Shakespeare

Written and directed by Keir Cutler
Revived Aug. 2000 FringeNYC
Teatro 309 at Charas/El Bohio
605 E. 9th Street (between B & C) (420-8877)
Equity showcase (closes Aug. 27, 2000)
Review by Doug DeVita

[Ed. note: This show was reviewed at the American Theatre of Actors' Chernuchin Theatre, where it closed January 2, 1999.]

"Whatever we don't like, we don't understand" is the self-serving mantra that runs through Teaching Shakespeare, a very funny, often cutting, and totally engaging work written, directed, and performed by the formidably delightful Keir Cutler.

A parody of a college Shakespeare class, Teaching Shakespeare is essentially a one-joke exposé of a frustrated actor turned frustrated professor. But what a joke! In one 50-minute, extremely well-written "period," Cutler's elegant script works on several levels all at once with the elusive, delicate, and breathtaking clarity that appeals to both the average theatregoer and the theatre snob. Loaded with in-jokes, obscure references, and a heady, self-deprecating sense of self-importance, in lesser hands it all might have imploded from its own arrogant intelligence. But Cutler's charming, skilful performance of his own skilful text refuted the wisdom that a writer should not direct or perform his own work. While mercilessly skewering actors, directors ("Every production of Shakespeare is a misrepresentation of Shakespeare"), critics ("Whatever we don't like, we don't understand"), students, and academia ("As Shakespeare is too brilliant for actors, Shakespeare is too brilliant for listeners"), Cutler created a multi-layered, richly textured portrait of a man so hopelessly out of touch with everything except his own importance and ability that he is stunned by the terrible, and mostly accurate, student evaluations of his teaching. Ranting, raving, and rationalizing with the deluded finesse endemic to most failed actors ("Whatever we don't like, we don't understand"), he gave a whole new twist to the term "acting out," deftly poking sharply hilarious jabs at his character's outraged sensibilities without ever losing sight of his underlying dignity or passion for the Bard and his craft.

Cutler's swiftly paced production was a Proustian experience that perfectly captured the college class-room atmosphere. The set consisted of a simple, beat-up desk and chair, the lighting was merely serviceable, and his outfit (scruffy black trousers and turtleneck with a baggy blue jacket) spoke volumes that couldnÕt begin to be covered by the spoken word.

Winner of a "Frankie" Award for best text in the Montreal Fringe Festival '99, Teaching Shakespeare is an incisive, witty, and appealing work that was unfortunately given too limited an engagement. Shakespeare may very well be an acquired taste for some audiences ("Whatever we don't like, we don't understand"), but time spent in Cutler's class was well worth it. It's a classy class, worth taking a second time. Or third.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Performance : 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita