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A&E Lou Harry: Murder most Hoosier

October 27, 2008

Last year, when I commented on Indiana Repertory Theatre's boiled-down-to-90-minutes production of "Hamlet," the theater wrote back making clear that the presentation was part of Shakespeare for a New Generation, an initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest. As part of that program, the to-the-bone length was mandatory.

That explained the "why." But it didn't change my reaction to the show as an audience member: It felt more like reading a Classics Illustrated edition of "Hamlet" rather than actually seeing the play.

To be fair, most productions of Shakespeare trim, nip, tuck and otherwise tamper with the text in order to help communicate effectively with contemporary audiences. The ones that work, though, are the ones that don't just cut with scissors, they cut with vision. If you're going to bring Shakespeare down to a running time shorter than "Saw V," it should be obvious-beyond grant demands or the assumed short-attention span of these kids today-why you are doing it.

All of which brings me to "Macbeth," the current clock-watching production at IRT (through Nov. 9). It's primarily being offered to student audiences but is also available for selected performances to traditional ticket-buyers, hence my discussion of it here.

Eminently open to directorial interpretation, "Macbeth" addresses, in very human terms, issues of fate and responsibility. Even with the bloody actions of the plot, there's poetry in the words. There's passion.

But for any of this to have an impact, there needs to be time for contemplation. Ninety minutes allows no time to process, to linger over implications, to think. In addition, the rapid pacing confuses plot points. The uninitiated might easily assume, for instance, that the witches are the murderers in a key scene, which changes the meaning entirely.

Tucked away in here, waiting to be unfolded, is a solid production. While Andrew Ahrens doesn't make much of an impression in the title role (he isn't directed in such a way that he stands out from his buddies), Jennifer Johansen is a forceful Lady Macbeth and Michael Shelton a suitably haunting Banquo. A powerful blood effect and a well-staged banquet scene highlight the production that might have been.

One final note: Whoever's idea it was to have the three witches reciting, in character, the show's corporate sponsors should seriously step back and consider what such absurdity does to the theatrical experience.

In Butler University's production of "Phedre" (Oct. 8-12), unmistakably directed by John Green, the set wasn't dominated by a staircase, the set was a staircase. And the multi-level action constantly underscored the characters' relation to each other.

The bold look of the play-and the head-on treatment of Jean Racine's 1677 play (translated by Ted Hughes)-was its strongest asset. No attempt was made to modernize, dumb-down or otherwise jump over an imagined chasm between the play itself and the modern audience. If that meant it was sometimes necessary to fight heavy eyelids, so be it. And while the youth of the actors often worked against the gravitas of the material, the play-in which a woman's love for her stepson threatens to destroy her and those around her-emerged as contemporary and worthy of more than just academic attention.

The clunkily titled "Cold-Blooded at Cold Spring: The Third Trial" (Oct. 17-26) would, if nothing else, have been a good opportunity to tour the Benjamin Harrison Home. But it was a bit more than that.

In James Trofatter's progressive narrative, the author himself played a pre-presidential Harrison, an Indiana lawyer when a horrific murder took place at Cold Spring. Beginning in the stable behind the historic home, Harrison introduced the case to audience members/jurors. Then, in room after room, he questioned witnesses or interested parties, eventually leading back to a deliberation area, where it was up to us to decide if Nancy E. Clem (the appropriately creepy Donna Wing) would hang for the crime.

The acting was no better or worse than you'd expect in such an enterprise and the evidence a bit challenging but not impossible to follow. A defense attorney might have helped balance matters. Still, most of my fellow travelers seemed as caught up as I was in sorting through the testimony to come to our conclusion. We didn't find enough evidence to support a conviction so we let her off.

Only afterward did we discover, via Trofatter, that the long-ago jury was wiser than we: Clem was actually found very, very guilty.
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