Blake said: “To see a world in a grain of sand / And a Heaven in a wild flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”
In a program created specifically for the Museum of Contemporary Art, English company Forced Entertainment takes that sentiment to heart in their (In) Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, using small, ordinary household objects as the players on a plain wooden rectangular table in front of a large microphone, giving hour-ish recaps of the canon, recapped in modern conversational language, with trippy interstitial music.
On February 26th, four unidentified actors, two men and two women dressed in black (Robin Arthur, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden, Terry O’Connor, Richard Lowdon, or Jerry Killick) focus on the cores of the stories; this night was The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Macbeth, and The Winter’s Tale, each announced by handwriting on a piece of cardboard (February 25 was Timon of Athens, Measure for Measure, Henry V, and Much Ado About Nothing; February 27 was Love’s Labour’s Lost, Antony and Cleopatra, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Tempest).
Merchant was the most successful of Friday’s program. A woman with a lilting voice and a passing resemblance to Marcia Gay Harden spooled out the story of Venetian anti-Semitism with clear images, appropriate pauses and smooth transitions.
“Some men hate cats, some hate bagpipes, Shylock hates Antonio,” she observed.
But even from a third row seat, it was difficult to tell what some of the objects were unless they had bold lettering (and one wonders how the group got so many spray bottles and liquids through airport customs), and it was even harder to tell if those objects had significance to their character counterparts.
Some choices were obvious – an Italian suitor was portrayed by a tin of tomatoes, the Frenchman was Grey Poupon mustard, Portia’s wedding game caskets were three colors of dice – but other connections weren’t so clear, as Shylock was a tiny empty picture frame.
Surrounded by metal garage shelves labeled with masking tape, set with props for all the plays, a pair of stacked gray plastic crates became the staging area for each particular play. I believe merchant Antonio was a bottle of oil, or wine, and Bassiano, Gratiano and Lorenzo were various silver candlesticks.
When vinegar bottles (?) Portia and Nerissa disguised themselves as male lawyers, they were flipped 180 degrees, perhaps their necks becoming their dicks.
A man in rectangular glasses was less smooth with As You Like It, often mistaking, then correcting, the male pairs of Dukes (one of whom was a can of Static Guard – and most cans were cap-less), servant Adam and shepherd Corin, and the De Boys boys Oliver and Orlando. His stumbling transitions consisted of primarily “The next morning…” or “Now…”
The women were primarily lotions, I think – Rosalind was Dove hand cream (or shampoo), Audrey was VEET hair remover.
The biggest laugh was about Jacques: “And then he makes a long speech.”
The Scottish play delivered another man with rectangular glasses, but with tousled blonde hair and a smoker’s voice. His household players seemed to be from a garage, or workshop, a more male space, begging the question, how are the objects curated? Does each performer walk about their habitats to procure their pieces? The murderers were drill bits in glass jars.
The three witches were balls of twine, I think Duncan was lighter fluid, Macduff was spackle, Siward was liquid wrench, and Banquo was clearly WD-40 spray (and, getting a laugh, was Fleance as a miniature version).
The tree branches of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane were green sponges.
Lady Macbeth was an empty glass jar, dirty from paint, so she had no “face,” which made it difficult to connect to her ambition (perhaps on purpose?).
Some text remained verbatim in the retelling: “Who’d have thought the old man had so much blood in him” and “I lead a charmed life.”
A gray-haired woman with a bun and headband helmed The Winter’s Tale with a clicking mouth noise and minimal movement, starting with Leontes and Hermione as lamps.
The premise was interesting, and would work wonders for high schoolers unwilling to actually read the plays, or unable to understand them. But four in a night was too long; each piece could have been trimmed, each unscripted segment better rehearsed. To be effective as art it needed more matter with less arts and crafts.
(In) Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare ran February 25-27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Information is available at 312-397-4010.