It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and in his time, poetry was considered a noble trade. Shakespeare made his mark there first, and most of us know by memory a few of those famous lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” In Shakespeare’s century, theater was in large part for the raucous and bawdy, pint-lifting hoi polloi: the commoners. It’s been rumored of late in the papers that the Bard, himself, tried to secure a noble crest for his family, perhaps to hush the naysayers who believed he was little but an upstart with an impressive vocabulary. But, the chalk-complexioned ginger Queen Elizabeth put most of those rumors to rest, and here we are today celebrating his insights on the human condition. It can be argued that despite the success of his politically themed theater, his strongest suit was a deep understanding of the heart.
While we may have plowed his sonnets in our younger years for our own romantic endeavors, it is usually the case that today Shakespeare’s poetry probably isn’t in our stack of books. Shaking the Tree, as part of CoHo’s SummerFest series of short-run shows (this one opened Thursday and closes Sunday) regrows an appreciation of his other, and perhaps, more personal work by way of a staged version of his brilliant poem Venus and Adonis.
Rebecca Ridenour’s goddess, Venus, shimmers in a golden gown, barefoot and with braided hair. She comes in with a case of vanity and the feral, celestial aura of a hunter. What she’s hunting, she’s not sure of, but in most cases it would take a male form. Ridenour is a suppressed volcanic wait of hormones. Here begins the triangle of insight by Ridenour, director Samantha Van Der Merwe, and Matthew Kerrigan as Adonis. All three play with Shakespeare’s mock view of how a petulant female chases a closed-hearted male, but both Venus and Adonis surface in the end as losers in a complicated game.
Shakespeare read a translation of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but the first stories of Venus and Adonis lie in the Middle East; and during the Peloponnesian Wars this myth of love, death and natural regeneration moved to the Greek isles. For the ancient Greeks, ambiguity was where the questions and answers lay. Adonis, the child of an incestuous and deceptive affair between his mother and her father, provides the answer to why he wanted in psychological terms to take the role of an asexual virgin being. His mother Myrhha’s trick to lie in her father’s bed was the root of Adonis’s flight from sexual relations. With his father out for vengeance by killing his own daughter for tricking him into sleeping with her, it’s easy to see why Adonis would have some hangups about sex. Where Adonis’ mother succeeded in her goal of entrapment, he could not. Wrapped up in the narcissism of his own innocence, Adonis failed to understand that the hunt ends in a kill, and the winning is in being the killer.
Kerrigan’s organic and seamless physical play takes up the stage, and Ridenour matches him in a chess game of words and motions. We swing between an empathy for the hypersensual Venus looking to scratch that itch, and a poor but handsome youth who just wants to be rid of unwanted complications and get on with his career. We laugh at the flirting as the two choreograph their dance of power and extend an invitation to the audience to help decide a winner. We become trapped in the hands of this flux and pulling of the heart strings, as the comedic devices set us up for a mythic resolve. In a nod to the pastoral roots of the god and his own training as an actor, Kerrigan’s Adonis is dressed as a countryside shepherd. Van Der Merwe’s set is simple and consistent with her finely attuned sense of creative design. An outcast umbrella from Portland’s streets becomes a horse, a physical sensation, a pond, and a fortress. The two actors play with the props, the myth, and the words like jugglers, until they are too tired and all the pieces fall down.
We laugh and fall into Venus’ seductive game, while knowing that Adonis will have none of it. Here is the surprise: while we may know the myth, we still follow along with Kerrigan and Ridenour as if a different ending is in store. Like a light switch, the flirtatious play turns off. All the bubble and excitement of unrequited physical love falls quickly into dark shadows. As the Grshwins wrote of love: nice work if you can get it, and if you get it, won’t you tell me how. The play’s first 45 minutes are a high-energy push and pull between the two, but the last 60 seconds of sorrow capture as much longing.