With apologies to Van Morrison, it’s a marvelous night for a word dance.
“Taking Shakespeare,” John Murrell’s 90-minute two-hander that’s playing at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul, has a pair of beautiful performances. Linda Kelsey plays a veteran English professor at a university that wants to let her go, while relative newcomer John A.W. Stephens is a student who cannot get into Shakespeare, partly because he thinks the titles of the Bard’s plays are too long. (!)
And, oh, they’re of different races. Murph (Stephens), who is black and the son of the dean, wrestles with the text of “Othello.” He thinks that Shakespeare is benighted. But after a few weeks of tutoring by Prof, he looks up from his copy of “Othello” and makes a declaration that would give Megyn Kelly conniptions.
“Shakespeare is black,” he says, smiling.
This pleases Prof to no end, and not simply because she’s succeeded in having Murphy appreciate the Bard. She has a closer relationship to Shakespeare’s characters than to people in real life, and leads a mostly solitary existence in the living room of the apartment where she sleeps surrounded by books, coffee and the remnants of Chinese takeout.
On its face, the play, which premiered at Ontario’s Stratford Festival in 2013, is like Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” with a seasoned teacher passing on a wealth of insights to a reluctant newbie.
There’s tension, yes, and strangeness as they get to know each other in this intimate, three-quarter-round staging handled deftly by director Peter Christian Hansen. Prof confides in Murph that she had a crush on her Shakespeare professor, one that went unfulfilled. Will she ignite similar desires in her one-on-one pupil?
Passion is twinned with regret in Kelsey’s performance. Prof has a hard edge that’s evident in her tone, her bearing and those fiery eyes — no doubt a self-protective cover developed over years of warding off questions about happiness and fulfillment. But there are wrinkles in her stout defense of her decisions. Like most of us, she wonders whether she made the right choices.
Tall and elegant, Stephens would make a fine Othello himself — or a football player. His Murph, who loves “Game of Thrones,” goes on a conversion journey about the Bard. He plays the role effortlessly, with lyrical line readings and winning grace.
Beyond the interpersonal drama, “Taking Shakespeare” joins a conversation about how to deal with problematic classic texts, especially as they relate to race and gender. Playwright Murrell has Prof own the Bard’s virtues. But she explains away some of the more loaded cultural ideas in “Othello” and avoids some of the most challenging lines, like villain Iago’s exhortation to Desdemona’s father as she elopes with Othello: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise, awake the snorting citizens with the bell. Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.”
In this sense, Murph’s declaration about Shakespeare’s racial background is more about the student seeing through Prof’s eyes than through his own. He adopts his brilliant tutor’s views of Shakespeare’s genius as something that can be claimed (“taken”?) by all. And because these two actors are so honest and affecting, we believe it.