They are the most gloriously written plays of all time, bursting with riches of language that continue to stagger the imagination more than four centuries after they were created.
Yet many recent Shakespeare productions hereabouts have placed less emphasis on those glittering words than on boldly arresting imagery, whimsical concepts, and a freewheeling physicality that marries calisthenics to vaudeville — and not just the comedies, either, but also the tragedies, romances, and histories.
When it succeeds, as with Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s deliriously entertaining “The Comedy of Errors,’’ we’re reminded that Shakespeare intended his works to be performed before live audiences, not to gather dust in the bin marked “dramatic literature.’’
When it doesn’t succeed, as with the strangely lighthearted “King Lear’’ that wrapped up performances Thursday at ArtsEmerson, you’re left with the sour feeling that style has elbowed substance aside, to the detriment of the play’s deeper meaning.
Either way, it’s clear that if Elizabethan verse wants a prominent place at the party nowadays, it must come dressed up in snazzy contemporary garb — or perhaps in a plaid bathrobe and blue boxer shorts like the ones Paul Giamatti wore last year as he capered about the stage while portraying the title character in a Yale Repertory Theatre production of “Hamlet.’’
Now, it’s not news that we live in the era of the chronically short attention span, seldom more than an hour or two away from checking our Facebook feeds, perpetually glancing down at our smartphones. Beyond that lies our deep distrust of formality, of any kind. (Just consider the merciless lampooning of Secretary of State John Kerry’s pontifical demeanor by our reigning cultural arbiter, Jon Stewart.) So it’s no wonder that theater companies strive for informality. A couple of weeks ago there was a quite wonderful “Much Ado About Nothing’’ at Wellesley College that had the casual, tossed-off air of a rehearsal, even though the performers were actually polished British stage actors, performing under the name Actors From The London Stage.
The reality is that a straightforward presentation of Shakespeare would be swimming against the zeitgeist, which may be why there are so few of them. It’s almost unheard of today, at least in the Boston area, for a Shakespeare play to take place in the time period he stipulated in the script; most directors opt instead for 20th- or 21st-century settings.
But there may be another, deeper reason for all these tricked-out treatments of the canon that owe as much to Barnum as to the Bard. Nearly three decades ago, the respected literary critic Northrop Frye made the sweeping and unequivocal declaration that “In every play Shakespeare wrote, the hero or central character is the theatre itself.’’
A lot of today’s directors certainly seem to believe so, to judge by the way they’ve exercised their creative license in interpretations that seek to delight us present-day groundlings by utilizing all the tricks that theater has to offer. Yes, directors have long sought to explore the expressive possibilities of ornate theatrical trappings and updated settings for Shakespeare’s plays. But production by production, it feels as if the creative ante has been upped, in an unspoken but very real competition to be the most innovative kid on the block.
Not so coincidentally, theater companies are obsessively focused today, as they should and indeed must be, on audience development. So here come these innovative approaches — Shakespeare for people who don’t like Shakespeare — that are designed to attract new and younger theatergoers: elaborate sets, outlandish costumes, goofy props, deliberate anachronisms, forays into slapstick, allusions to pop culture, self-referential satire, knowing nods to technology. Present-day productions of Shakespeare tend not to trust the words alone; they are often wedded to concepts that seek to stretch his plays into inventive new shapes.
Last spring “The Tempest’’ got a carnival-inspired, magic-infused treatment at American Repertory Theater, courtesy of Teller (of the magic duo Penn & Teller) and Aaron Posner. A current production of “Much Ado About Nothing’’ at Boston Theater Company, directed by Joey Frangieh, integrates cellphones, tablets, and Photoshop into the play.
With Tony Simotes at the helm, Shakespeare & Company sought to transform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ into a Jazz Age New Orleans fantasia last summer in Lenox, just a few months after Bristol Old Vic turned “Dream’’ into a kind of combination puppet show and do-it-yourself carpentry project at ArtsEmerson. And of course there’s the ART’s “The Donkey Show,’’ which turns “Dream’’ into a disco-era fever dream and is a long-running hit at Oberon.
In the summer of 2013, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company transposed “The Two Gentlemen of Verona’’ to 1960s Las Vegas, with director Steven Maler summoning the ring-a-ding-ding ghosts of Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. Last month Maler helmed “Shakespeare at Fenway,’’ a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production in a certain “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark’’ — to quote another immortal writer, John Updike — in which actors enacted scenes from the plays and belted songs inspired by Shakespeare.
A little over a week ago, I sat amid a crowd of high schoolers at a morning performance of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “The Comedy of Errors’’ at Brighton High School, directed by the always-ingenious David R. Gammons. The topsy-turvy scenic design, also by Gammons, offered some hints as to the mayhem about to ensue. A merry-go-round horse was suspended upside down over the stage, and a large clock face was tilted on its side upstage.
Gammons’s play-within-a-play concept was that an inept carnival troupe was attempting, with fits and starts and botched lines and wildly over-the-top performances, to put on “Comedy of Errors.’’ The result was a state of perpetual pandemonium that kept the teenagers — a demographic notoriously leery of Shakespeare — convulsed with laughter. At one point, Jesse Hinson, playing Antipholus, intent on wooing a young lady, hoisted a boombox aloft as it played Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes’’ — a clever visual allusion to a famous scene in the film “Say Anything.’’ The kids, none of whom had been born when the movie came out in 1989, loved it.
However, in my experience that kind of juiced-up approach works better with comedy than with tragedy. Take the recent Shakespeare’s Globe production of “King Lear’’ directed by Bill Buckhurst and presented by ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center Mainstage. Both the ideas and the impact of that monumental tragedy were diminished by the puckish tone that ran through the performance and the periodic musical interludes.
Sure, it was amusing when, for example, an actor ran back and forth between roles in a single scene, bareheaded in one role, donning a cap for the other. But it was evident on opening night that moments like that had undermined the production by conditioning the audience to laugh when they should have been transfixed by pity and even anguish. When the Duke of Cornwall, having gouged out poor Gloucester’s eyes, proceeded to hurl the eyeballs into the wings like Tom Brady hitting a receiver streaking downfield, some spectators howled in merriment. What should be a harrowing scene struck them as a sight gag.
Similarly disconcerting tonal issues bedeviled Yale Rep’s “Hamlet,’’ helmed by its artistic director, James Bundy. Giamatti played Hamlet as an antic Everyschlub, leaping into the arms of Horatio at one point and, at another, weary of the sententious Polonius, ostentatiously pretending to cut his own throat. You couldn’t take your eyes off Giamatti, but you also couldn’t shake the feeling that he and the rest of the cast were acting in completely different productions.
During one encounter with Polonius, when the old man asked Hamlet what he was reading, the prince gave the famous reply: “Words, words, words.’’
Words? Hey, buddy, get with the program.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.