Shakespeare's Actresses in America, a one-woman show, written and performed by Rebekah Maggor and directed by Karin Coonrod, strives to recreate the voice and acting styles of leading Shakespearean actresses, mostly from the early twentieth century. The show is 'narrated' by Margaret Webster, an actor and producer famous for directing Paul Robeson as Othello on Broadway, and for forming the American Repertory Theatre with her partner Eva Le Gallienne. Maggor, as Webster, introduces and comments on a series of scenes as played by various actresses, and then plays the scenes herself, in the voice and style of those actresses. At several points in the show, scenes are repeated to allow for comparison as to the effectiveness of the various styles.
As the narrator and occasional participant, Maggor's Webster is a charming and persuasive advocate for the actor's role as authoritative interpreter of Shakespeare's work. She gives brief biographical sketches of the actresses, and interacts with the audience with the wry assurance of a longtime stage professional. Maggor does an excellent job of keeping her character consistent and compelling throughout.
With astounding skill and energy, Maggor highlights differences in the actresses' styles without exaggeration, and produces some very funny and moving moments in the process. Her rendition of Claire Danes as Juliet is comedic, but not belittling, and her Titania, by way of Kathleen Turner, is as throaty and sensual as one could hope. A trio of Ada Rehan, Mary Pickford, and Elizabeth Taylor performing Katharina's speech to wives is wickedly fun, and Maggor is irrepressibly feisty as the divine Sarah Bernhardt doing Hamlet (in French!). Her performances as Webster, acting as Viola and as Hamlet, are especially heartfelt, and the closing scene of Ellen Terry and Lisa Gay Hamilton jointly as Ophelia, haunting.
Where the performance lacks a bit is not in performance, per se, but in organization. Several themes emerge—the development of acting styles over time; the relationships between and among the actresses, many of whom shared the stage as colleagues or competitors—but these themes are not exploited, or even emphasized to their fullest. It is neither clear just why these actresses and these scenes are chosen for performance (perhaps based on access to research materials?), nor how Shakespeare is important to them, or they to Shakespeare.
Oana Botez-Ban costumes Ms. Maggor in a simple, full-skirted, fuchsia gown for most of the production. The effect is formal and dramatic without being too specific. The one costume change, to a tunic and hose for the Hamlet and Ophelia scenes at the end of the production, is somewhat jarring, and possibly unnecessary. Both the lighting, designed by Brian Scott, and the sound, by Tony Geballe, fully support the production without being ostentatious or overwhelming. The lighting, in particular, helps to clearly delineate the separate scenes, and creates a conversational tone for the narrated portions of the show. The stage itself allows but one bench flanked by plain black curtains, which proves a flexible enough backdrop for the swiftly shifting scenes.
The success of this production rests on Maggor's considerable dramatic talent and clear devotion to the history of the theatre. The show is both educational and emotional without being either pedantic or melodramatic. Watching it, one gets a sense of the depth and breadth of the American theatrical tradition.
Shakespeare's Actresses in America, directed by Rebekah Maggor, is playing at the Wimberly Theatre in Boston, MA January 27 - February 11, 2008. For information and tickets, visit www.huntingtontheatre.org .