"Why now?" That is the question.
The Philadelphia theater season now underway offers five plays by Shakespeare or his rough contemporaries, most shows speaking directly to the current moment, as local directors, actors, and designers unpack the social and political undercurrents of spring 2017.
Of the five, just one, A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Arden Theatre through April 13, offers itself primarily as entertainment. It's a stripped-down, steampunk, contemporary-feeling jam. As director Matt Pfeiffer puts it, "We want this to be a joyous event, with the audience letting go of the pressures of this world and enjoying it."
The other four 400-year-old plays are two Shakespeares -- Coriolanus at the Lantern Theater (through April 16) and Love's Labor's Lost at the Quintessence Theatre Group (through April 21) -- and two general contemporaries, John Ford's The Broken Heart at Quintessence (March 29-April 23) and John Webster's The White Devil at Philadelphia Artists' Collective (May 3-20). These plays embody the questions and fears in the air this spring: men's search for identity, women's expectations for a place at the table, instability and suspicion in society and politics.
Coriolanus is, as director Charles McMahon puts it, "one of his most adult, political plays, one that speaks to this very moment." Think 21st-century sets, video, the trappings of the modern deep state. Coriolanus dislikes politics yet, out of sheer pride, he seeks to upend Rome.
At his best, Webster can be almost as good as Shakespeare, and director Damon Bonetti sees the playwright's White Devil, first performed in 1612, as film noir. "I went back to Double Indemnity and Kiss Me Deadly, these great films," says Bonetti, "and I realized, 'That's the world of this play,' a world of shadows, suspicion, no one trusts anyone." Somehow familiar.
Love's Labor's Lost concerns three guys who foolishly swear off women. Director Alexander Burns stresses what it says about the sexes. "Men today are really struggling with identity," Burns says, "what it is to be a man, how to present yourself, prove your intelligence, show emotion. In the chaos of our current political scene, in which some men think it's a time for assertion, others a time of caution, this play speaks right to us."
Guess who holds the key. Independent, fiercely witty, the women in LLL "aren't beholden to the same social limits as women in other Shakespearean plays," Burns says. "Supposedly the lesser sex, they actually command the action."
Women unsettle their worlds. In Broken Heart, first published in 1633, women make noble, wild, fatal choices. So does willful, sharp-tongued Vittoria of The White Devil.
"The heroes of Webster's plays are really the women," Bonetti says. "He was looking at women's roles in society, how marriage relates to money, how people try to control female sexuality." And A Midsummer Night's Dream is largely a fantasia of women who love irrationally and ineptly, including Helena, Hermia, and the fairy queen herself, Titania.
The gender and the political meet in Coriolanus. Robert Lyons, who plays the title character, says, "He stands for a code that's becoming outmoded. And then, of course, there's his mother." That would be Volumnia, the ultimate stage mom.
"What impresses me is just how manipulative she is," says Tina Packer, plainly savoring the role. "How she sees into other people around her and is so politically aware. And this vicarious life she lives through her son." (McMahon says, "Volumnia's the one with the skills and the savvy. She's the one who should really be in power.")