DramaNew York

Breaking the Shakespeare Code – 440 Studios, New York City

Writer: John Minigan

Director: Stephen Brotebeck

Reviewer: Adrienne Sowers

The challenge for many college professors with young actors is often helping them find reality and groundedness in roles, particularly Shakespeare. From the question that must be asked of soliloquies: “Who are you talking to right now?” to understanding how iambs (or lack thereof) are the guide to what is of import to a character, the foundational realities of living in the world of a character are often some of the trickiest to teach… and to learn.

The intricacies of developing a character and developing ones own identity are unpacked in Hey Jonte! Productions remounting of Breaking the Shakespeare Code at 440 Studios’ intimate Black Box space. This two-hander packs sixteen years of a relationship into ninety brief minutes, bringing a Shakespearean sense of urgency to a contemporary piece. Set within the walls of an acting classroom, with a simple black table and a few rehearsal cubes, and former theatre student will immediately feel as though they have returned to their collegiate years. One of the greatest drawbacks to the performance space – lots of ambient noise from other rehearsals and shows on the same floor heard through what must be very thin walls – works to the favor of Breaking the Shakespeare Code.   Even the most intimate and quiet scenework in a college rehearsal halls is interspersed with vocal warmups or oboe bleats or the clickety-clack of tap shoes from other rooms. This happy coincidence creates a visceral sense of realism.

Miranda Jonte (Anna) and Tim Weinert (Curt) have undeniable chemistry as a professor and student navigating their relationship as mentor and mentee, as well as their personal dynamic over the course of sixteen years. There is a tremendous amount of trust and specificity within their work, and it pays off in impassioned and grounded peaks and valleys as these characters grapple with their differences and their own neuroses to find their way to each other. Stephen Brotebeck’s direction is unflinching in its commitment to riding out the fire within John Minigan’s text, with a pace that becomes seductively merciless at times, no-holds-barred lust and ire intertwining to drive the meaning of the text.. and the subtext… and the sub-subtext, of which there is quite a bit.

This play morphs with each scene (set a few years from the preceding one) brings a new set of challenges to the characters. Scene one feels the most specific and the direction and performances reflect that. As the characters lose a bit of their footing, the production wavers as well. In particular, the third scene tends to lose itself in the blocking of it. With an entire room to play in, Jonte and Weinert are often mere feet apart at any given time. And when the character of Anna becomes upset, she returns to her shoes and bag (discarded earlier in the scene beside and atop a rehearsal block), as though to leave. The problem, though, is that she does this repeatedly throughout the scene and always grabs her bag first, ignoring her shoes. This is done so often that it becomes a clearly telegraphed signal that she has no intention to leave. While that may be a deliberate choice on the part of the director or actor, it becomes tedious visually and creates an emotional redundancy that undermines Anna’s fire. If someone is really so angry they’re going to leave, even if they storm out barefoot, they are going to grab their shoes at some point. Shoes signify leaving, so Anna’s seemingly deliberate ignoring of them telegraphs as intentional manipulation, and though neither of these characters is above that, Anna has proven herself throughout the rest of the play as someone far smarter than she appears in her constant empty threat to leave the space.

Breaking the Shakespeare Code is a compelling ninety minutes of theatre. Scholars of the craft and particularly those who enjoy Shakespeare will have strong footholds as they experience this play. But one needn’t have read Cymbeline or The Merry Wives of Windsor to find themself entrenched in the visceral human tale that unfolds between Anna and Curt. For fans of Shakespeare or anyone feeling nostalgic about their conservatory days, this is certainly a production to see.

Runs Until 2 June, 2019 | Photo Credit: Simon Raymundo

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Seductively Merciless

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The American team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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