Shakespeare’s Gospel Parodies: A Medieval Mystery Tour
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
September 13, 2011
Step into a venerable Upper West Side church where Joe Papp once installed the Riverside Shakespeare Company. You will be ushered from room to room by docents who fill you in on the surprisingly consistent vein of Gospel parody that runs through Shakespeare's plays. As they say, in the whole of Shakespeare's dramas there are 14 resurrections, 12 apocalypses, 5 Virgin Mary allegories, 3000 additional religious references, and quotes from 14 different translations of the Bible including Apocrypha. What can it mean? Why are these actors putting on such an irreverent pageant of Satanic astrological references with Protestant overtones? It is a fun and funny take on what you may think of as "establishment" theater of the Elizabethan era.
John Hudson and The Dark Lady Players present nine scenes from Shakespeare, divided into three thematic groups and casts. When you see two back-to-back Annunciation scenes (from Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet) you may be persuaded that something is going on underneath the surface of these plays. For example, Ophelia (in Greek, "Lady of Succor") is in danger of "conceiving" in broad daylight (a medieval belief cited by Alanus de Insulis) but the source of the light is Hamlet, "son of Hyperion" (which makes him Helios, or "Lucifer"); thus we see that the whole Hamlet and Ophelia romance is leading towards the birth of the Antichrist. This takes a bit of explaining, but the chosen episodes make a clear case for it. In Othello, Desdemona (Mary/Jesus) is condemned because of a handkerchief that covers her face like a shroud, she comes back to life after being killed, and then other characters announce an earthquake. Not only is this similar to the Gospel account, but Shakespeare the notorious plagiarist has modified his source material (the Hecatommithi) so that Desdemona is killed with a symbolic handkerchief instead of bludgeoned with a sandbag. If you believe that Shakespeare has something for everyone—from swordfights for the working class patrons to allegories for the educated viewers—then start looking for hidden heretical themes.
Another thought-provoking scene is the trial of Shylock (whose name, "Shiloh," means the Messiah as per Genesis 49:10). We are shown that there are three trials going on, just like the three trials of Jesus. And just as non-legal processes are evident in the Gospel (a mob decides which prisoner will be set free), Shylock's punishment has no basis in Venetian law. This follows the exorcism scene from Twelfth Night. Which scene is that, you ask? The one where Malvolio is blindfolded, referred to as "Legion," and a priest tries to cure his madness, ending in satirical failure. Other highlights parody the Last Supper with a cannibal feast from As You Like It, and show three "magi" in Titus Andronicus greeting a black baby and killing a pig. The assertion here is that Titus and Domitian's invasion of Judea is the real story in Titus Andronicus, as per extensive quotes from Josephus and medieval historians. If Titus was an oppressive theocratic ruler, Elizabeth must have been one, too.
This is just a summary. Do go see the show, watch the group's explanatory videos, and feel free to discuss at length.
As an evening of theater, it is gorgeous. The Woodshed Collective, who are running their own show The Tenant in repertory, has brought all sorts of ancient-looking furnishings into the currently vacant and under-renovation West-Park Church. Jenny Greeman directs a committed troupe of mostly women, who are quite willing to strike Gothic poses, pretend to be pregnant, wear Jewish religious garments, and anything else they need to do to breathe fresh air into Shakespeare. Elizabeth Weitzen's costumes (including a shirt which shows all the cuts of meat on the character of Adam, who is about to be devoured) don't let your mind wander from the action. Since the piece comes off as "scholarly," it relies on the docents Meaghan Cross, David Reck, Shykia Fields, and Carolina Mesinara, who provide a heck of a lot of information and levity as well as let the audience stretch its legs between scenes.