Those who have experienced one of veteran British stage and screen actor Simon Callow’s compelling one-man shows in the past will likely be checking out his latest solo effort solely based on the sheer revelation and enjoyment of his previous outings. However, unlike, say, his one-man Dickens show, where so much is known about that author and the material presented is always on terra firma, “Being Shakespeare” is a far more speculative show. And yet it is precisely because so little is known about the Bard—taken with his sine qua non reputation in the canon of English literature and a template-setting role in theater as we know it—that we are all the more curious.
Originally called the “The Man from Stratford” when it opened three years ago, “Being Shakespeare” has gone from being an epic, effects-filled show—the original reportedly began with a storm, with Callow making a grand entrance bellowing as Prospero—to an intimate, family portrait of the speculatively ordinary aspects of an extraordinary man—or rather, as this show would have us believe, an ordinary man who just happened to produce an extraordinary body of work. In that, “Being Shakespeare” becomes another play in and of itself, in this case, a play about a playwright. Despite the title, Callow never addresses the audience as Shakespeare, but as a contemporary narrator who offers an aesthetic biography of the Bard. A far better title might have been “Shakespeare’s World,” as that is the journey we make, a surprisingly refreshing journey, given how Shakespeare is usually contemporized in modern productions.
We never do get a glimpse of the inner workings of Shakespeare as a playwright, however. Which, of course, is what we really yearn to know; i.e., his modus operandi. We are instead presented with points of agreement between how little we do know of his biography alongside illustrative play excerpts—brilliantly performed—offered up in support of them.
It all comes out quite convincingly, to be sure, and entertainingly, particularly with Callow’s secure rapport with the audience. Callow unspools each chapter of Shakespeare’s life, corresponding to the seven stages of man as presented in the soliloquy from “As You Like It.” And yet we are nonetheless left to ponder, if “all the world’s a stage,” what role did Shakespeare actually play in his own Elizabethan world, as opposed to the role he played in the four subsequent centuries, which have canonized him in ways that, for all of his seemingly infinite creativity, he scarcely could have imagined?
Shakespeare is, of course, in part the product of his time, as we all are and as this show seeks to demonstrate. And yet it is precisely because his is that rare body of work that transcends time and speaks to a common humanity that reaches across the ages that it was as effective in revealing basic truths in that seemingly distant Elizabethan world as it is today. We are left to bask in that mystery and to celebrate it, which, when all is said and done, is all we likely can do since “the play’s the thing. (Dennis Polkow)
The Broadway Playhouse, 175 East Chestnut, (800)775-2000. $45-$75. Through April 29.