by Lynn on August 1, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Festival, Stratford, Ontario. Written by John Murrell. Directed by Diana Leblanc. Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco. Lighting by Itai Erdal. Sound by Todd Charlton. Starring Martha Henry and Luke Humphrey

The Professor (listed as Prof. in the program) has been teaching Shakespeare at this undistinguished university for years. She is prickly, demanding, detail-minded and crotchety. Murph is a twenty-four-year-old first year student, struggling with Shakespeare. He studied Hamlet in high school and couldn’t finish reading the play nor did he understand what he did read. His mother has asked the Prof to tutor Murph. Years before Murph’s mother studied Shakespeare with the Prof. The mother liked the Prof and learned to love Shakespeare as a result.

But the mother felt that Murph was not living up to his potential; her expectations of him. So she sends him to the Prof for help. Murph’s mother apparently has lived up to her own expectations of herself—she is now the Dean of Humanities at that very undistinguished university, and therefore, the Prof’s boss.

Why is Murph twenty-four years old and only in first year, the Prof wants to know? Because he travelled for about three years after high school. His passion is video games. He is not a reader. He doesn’t like Shakespeare because the titles are too long. In university they are also studying The Comedy of Errors and some play that takes place in a forest—he can’t recall the title.  Murph just can’t connect to any of those plays. The Prof laments that Murph’s professor is teaching the comedies in first year.

Initially the Prof refuses to work with Murph.  He is so lacking in even the basics of an English education. But then she relents, with the constant aid of strong coffee and perhaps a few glugs of something stronger.  Murph wants to study Othello of all plays (Murph is white). And so the tutoring begins. For several weeks Murph reads sections of the play and the Prof questions him on the motives, actions and reasons for what happens in it. And gradually Murph begins to question on his own; to figure out who was Desdemona; why Iago did what he did to Othello and perhaps why Othello let him do it. Chaos, being profoundly hurt, jealousy and love are aspects of the play Murph discovers with the help of his Prof.

Murph doesn’t suddenly become a blazing Shakespearean scholar by the end of the tutoring. Nor does the relationship between the innocent ‘puppy’ that Murph is and his prickly Prof become anything other than hard won respect. That would be too simplistic and playwright John Murrell is not a simplistic writer. Instead we have two characters who have learned from each other—and to see the all knowing Prof discover and admit that she has learned something from Murph is a thing of beauty. And while the ending is mercifully not sentimental I do think it’s too abrupt. But that’s a quibble.

Murrell’s play is full of wit, zinging barbs, erudite thoughts, insight into Shakespeare and certainly Othello, an indictment of the educational system and the revealing of the beating hearts of two wounded people, to name a few.

Director Diana Leblanc and her creative team have beautifully realized the world of the Prof. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set of her book-filled, clutter strewn study with rugs everywhere, and with comfortable but worn furniture, show the place where a scholar has worked and hidden away for years. The lighting of Itai Erdal is almost dappled and delicate as it illuminates the room. Leblanc stages with an easy fluidity and even a sense of whimsy. And as always with Leblanc there is subtle detail in every move and decision. The Prof obviously had a relationship that she is reluctant to discuss. But you can tell how important it was when the Prof removes a photograph from her copy of Othello and quickly, secretively puts it in her pocket. We assume it’s of the man she loved years before. With such business like that Leblanc engages the audience; makes them look as well as see; observe and discover.

You can chart Murph’s progress by his socks. The Prof insists that he take off his shoes when he comes into the room (to protect the rugs) and he’s embarrassed because he has holes in them. As the tutoring sessions continue over the weeks he wears socks with no holes in them but are mismatched, until finally at the end, his socks are matched and holeless.

The acting is superb. As the Prof, Martha Henry is always on the move. She scurries around her study, makes coffee, shifts in her chair perhaps to show a shortness of patience and eventually sits still in a chair facing Murph, engaging. She is no-nonsense; her looks over her glasses at him can be withering; her lack of patience at his lack of knowledge and initial shallow thinking is both blunt and stingingly funny. Henry is never sentimental and yet she reveals the hurt the Prof feels at various events that affect her. She is not defeated, but she is defiant. And she does have a kind heart towards her young student. When he reacts with emotion at some bad news and lies on her sofa, she tenderly takes a corner of a blanket and ruffles his hair. It’s an astonishing performance of a towering actress who is an acting treasure in this country.

As Murph, Luke Humphrey rises to the occasion. This young actor is both an innocent and cocky; careless and concerned. He is so in the moment that he is compelling. Murphy has been floating casually through life but when he comes under the influence of his hugely accomplished mother, the weight of his inadequacy is obvious in Humphrey’s beautifully modulated performance.

Taking Shakespeare is not just an education in Shakespeare and Othello, it’s an education in acting and theatre at its finest.

Taking Shakespeare continues at the Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival until September 22.


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1 Kent James August 26, 2013 at 10:39 am

Nicely put.

It was refreshing that Henry’s character owns up to her part in her demise – she’s mad, but she doesn’t fail to recognize that she might have helped her cause by NOT failing to show up for 5 lectures in a row.

Agree that these are two very fine performances in an excellent piece.