Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 1999

This sounds like a really good idea. Get seven award-winning modern playwrights to each write a play based on one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and stage them all in one evening. Shakespeare is the man of the hour, and how can you go wrong with writers like Eric Bogosian, William Finn, Tony Kushner, Ntozake Shange, Wendy Wasserstein, Marsha Norman, and John Guare?

The answer is to be found in two places. First in Shakespeare’s own cannon of work. The man wrote 36 plays. An amazing number of them are very, very good – so good that they are still performed 400 years later. But a reasonable proportion of them are mediocre, and a few are down-right bad. This is because Shakespeare was human and had his share of failure as well as success. One, two, or even a dozen award winning plays does not mean that everything an author writes will be wonderful, or even worth staging.

The second answer lies in that golden number – seven. In the first paragraph the list of playwrights was long. So long that I felt I couldn’t put the titles of their most famous works after their names. Seven plays in one evening are too many. You lose track, become overwhelmed. In hindsight there were more interesting efforts than poor ones, but they came at me so fast and furious that my overall reaction was one of exhaustion and disfavor.

A harsh and distasteful play “Bitter Sauce” by Eric Bogosian (“Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll”) opens the evening. It is an odd choice, having seen the rest of the works, it is so full of betrayal, kinky sex and swear words that the word “Love” hardly seems a fitting title for the evening ahead. In fact many of the playwrights seem to have heard “sex” in place of “love”. Shakespeare certainly wrote about sex (they had it back then too) and the sonnets are full of smutty little Elizabethan jokes, but sex is not love.

Bogosian is followed by an aria “Painting You” by William Finn (“March of the Falsettos”) on homosexual love sung by a painter to his model and lover. The music is lovely and Erik Steele is in fine voice as the painter. Lance Williams, as his lover, is seldom allowed to put his shirt or pants on during the course of the evening. Williams is a good looking man, but I found his constant state of semi-undress while all the white males stayed clothed as racist and exploitative. Must the African-American male represent “jungle man” sexuality?

Pulitzer prize winner Tony Kushner’s (“Angels in America”) painfully long opus with a painfully long title “Terminating, or Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or Ambivalence” follows. If you have to give your play three titles, one of them in German, you need to start again. Anal sex, graphically described, is equated with love throughout this piece.

Thank goodness Ntozake Shange’s (“For White Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf”) lyric dance, music and theatre piece “Hydraulics Phat Like Mean” saves the first half of the evening. Williams doesn’t get to put his shirt on, but he sure can dance! He was well matched with Chandra Hartman in splendid choreography by Leslie Arlette Boyce to original music by Chico Freeman.

The second half contains plays that are more upbeat and mainstream, and therefore more accessible to the average Berkshire County audience. Wasserstein, Norman and Guare seem to grasp that there is more to love, hetero- or homosexual, than sex.

Wendy Wasserstein’s (“The Heidi Chronicles”) delightful upper-middle class riff “Waiting for Philip Glass” opens, highlighting the talents of the appealing Amy Bruce. Pulitzer prize winner Marsha Norman (“‘Night Mother”) struts her stuff next with the thought provoking “140”. And the prolific John Guare (“House of Blue Leaves”) closes the evening with his typical stream-of-conciousness comedy and music in “The General of Hot Desire”. Hartman does a fine job with Adam Guettel’s song.

Guare’s work brings the entire acting company of four men and four women on to the stage. They are a politically correct mix of races and “looks” and none of them looks much over 30. They perform well as an ensemble, but I wonder if they go out for coffee together much.

The set by Klara Zieglerova is pretty much non-existent. I liked how the words of Sonnet 17 appeared and disappeared on the one backdrop to the action, but I did not like or understand the large, orange, internally lit papier mache goose which hung over the stage throughout. The lighting by Matthew Adelson is harsh, white, and created many shadows on the actors faces. This whole mess is directed by Jonathan Rosenberg.

“Love’s Fires” runs through July 17 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival‘s Unicorn Theatre, just off Route 7 in Stockbridge. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission, and contains “adult language and situations”. Call 413-298-5576 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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