The Bard is Back

Broadway is nothing if not cyclical. If one year sees a bunch of English dramas, the next will offer a crop of small musicals. Two decades ago, Broadway had so few new musicals, Sunset Boulevard virtually stood alone competing for the 1995 Tony Awards. Nowadays, producers must fight for space to bring in a new tuner, since so many theaters are booked with long-running musical productions. Which brings us to perhaps the biggest Broadway story so far this season: The resurgence of William Shakespeare as a force on The Street.

For two solid years that started in March 2011, not one Shakespeare play opened on Broadway. Since last April though, when Alan Cumming brought his one-man Macbeth to the Ethel Barrymore Theater, no fewer than five Bard shows have trod the boards. The best received have been two plays done in rep—Richard III and Twelfth Night—both featuring mega-actor Mark Rylance and an all-male company of players. The idea was to do the plays as they might have been staged at the Globe Theatre back when Shakespeare was writing them, which means no electric lights (everything is lit by candles), period music on authentic-style instruments, men playing women and a rough-hewn sense of pretend. In fact, audiences who get to the theater early can watch the actors dress and make up right on stage.

Those performers include two-time Tony winner Rylance, as King Richard and Twelfth Night’s Olivia, as well as Bones favorite (and former Hugh Laurie comedy partner) Stephen Fry as Malvolio. Both shows have been extended through February 16—no shock, since most of the reviews read like The New York Times’ gushing love letter: “This is how Shakespeare was meant to be done… I can’t remember being so ridiculously happy for the entirety of a Shakespeare performance since…August 2002” (which is when said critic previously saw the same troupe do their Twelfth Night). Virtually every reviewer praised Twelfth Night for being hilarious without turning campy and most also found Rylance captivating as a Richard III exhibiting a darkly playful sensibility.

Elsewhere on Broadway the Bard of Avon has fared less well. A dystopian, modernized and interracial Romeo and Juliet, featuring movie star Orlando Bloom and theater up-and-comer Condola Rashad (Phylicia’s daughter), was drubbed for having little chemistry between its stars. And Jack O’Brien’s staging of Macbeth lived up to its reputation as an actor’s curse (as “The Scottish Play” is often deemed to be), this time befalling Ethan Hawke. Matt Windman of AM New York reflected the general sentiment that Hawke mumbled and played the role “like a flamboyant prima donna who has taken too many mind-altering drugs.”

Despite the flubs, all this Shakespeare is yet another demonstration of Broadway’s moniker as the “fabulous invalid.” How heartening that producers continue to risk prickly economics to stage big-cast, three-hour productions of plays penned 400 years ago by a writer using English so far removed from our own that half the time audiences can only get the dialogue’s gist rather than its literal meaning. Yes, Spider-Man might have taken a tumble, but some men in tights are still welcome on the Great White Way.