Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

There’s the germ of a decent farcical idea in Love’s Complaint, the Shakespeare-besotted work with which a new troupe called Synergy Theatre is introducing itself to audiences, but patrons are going to have to dig to find it. Dredge, actually.

That’s because the piece has been conceived not as comedy but as what the press release calls “poignant narrative.” In other words, the evening doesn’t very often actually mean to be funny, it’s just inept enough in pursuing its Bard-as-tortured-writer premise to suggest that the notion does indeed have farcical possibilities.

Not in this production, alas, and certainly not with a supporting cast that spouts Elizabethan verse as if it had learned it phonetically. But in a more controlled mounting, with a strong director, which Synergy pointedly (and apparently as a point of style) does not have, the inherent inanity of linking Shakespeare’s personal life with that of his characters, quite as if he were a 16th-century Ernest Hemingway, might well take comic flight.

The script would require some revisions, of course, and author Michael Naleszkiewicz probably isn’t the guy to write them. He is clearly a fan of the Bard, though not a discerning enough one to have picked up much in the way of technique. Plot, for instance, is not a strong point in Love’s Complaint, which is chiefly concerned with the self-doubts of a Hamletlike Shakespeare plagued with writer’s block. Nor is language given what Naleszkiewicz might call “long shrift.” A glance at the author’s program notes goes a long way to explaining this, since they ask audiences to “bare witness,” and suggest that a ploy might turn into a vehicle while celebrating a Bard who “stood like a god high on his mountain threshold of Stratford-Upon-Avon.”

That mountain threshold, it appears, was built on a foundation of rocky starts and rockier relationships. It has occurred to Naleszkiewicz to wonder how ol’ Will might have come up with such animatedly bickering lovers as Petruchio and Kate, Oberon and Titania, and Beatrice and Benedick, and to propose the not terribly interesting answer that the Bard must have had an unhappy home life with the missus.

Anne Hathaway (or Anne Shakespeare, as she’s referred to in the program) is pictured principally as a shrewish scold who keeps urging her husband to find something more productive to do with his afternoons than sit around talking to his muses. The audience may soon share Anne’s sentiments, since four figures wearing face-paint, sneakers, and coats with “Muse” written on their backs flit about incessantly, interrupting her domestic scenes with greatest-hits snatches of Shakespearean verse. (One of these figures, attired mostly in green, turns out to be the author, who certainly can’t be accused of underestimating his own capabilities.)

Still, at least the muses get to quote poetry from Taming of the Shrew and Richard III. The protagonists are saddled with ersatz-Elizabethanisms of a far more prosaic sort. After listening to Anne (Amy McWilliams) as she complains about Will’s neglect of their kids (“Hamlet needs a father”) or his obsession with craft (“you can shove your righteous duty up your ass”), no patron will have any doubt about why her phrasing hasn’t inspired her hubby. In fact, even when she makes the effort, her utterances prove pretty flat-footed. Take the moment when Will asks her to understand that his lollygagging in taverns with tale-spinning drunks is really research. “I understand,” she replies acidly, as if delivering a haymaker, “that when you are full of drink, you piss freely from the mouth.” Lady Macbeth she ain’t.

The nagging suspicion that Naleszkiewicz’s overreaching might be transformed by a decent director into a laff-riot is, I’m afraid, not supported by anything actually happening on stage. Synergy president Jack Phillips (aka the muse in purple) explains in yet another program note that the company has dispensed with the notion of a central vision in staging its work; “the role of the director is broken up and assigned to each member of the ensemble,” writes Phillips. “By doing this we create artists out of the actors.” (His own artistic contribution includes a remarkably chirpy reading of Othello’s murder scene.)

With this rudderless approach resulting in stage pictures at Gunston’s Theater Two that are about as unfocused as you’d expect, the evening rests rather heavily on the shoulders of the performers. Though the muses have been given nearly all the verse, the hapless leads are the only folks on the premises who can actually act, and they only intermittently get a chance to prove it. McWilliams soldiers on bravely, devoting the considerable skills she’s brought to American Century Theater’s The Effect of Gamma Rays… to making Anne something other than a total pill. She succeeds, but just barely. Peter J. Mendez, an ingratiating actor who enlivened that company’s The Pirate on this same stage last season, turns the youthful Bard-to-be into a reasonably charming goof. His bag of tricks is not bottomless, however, and he’s pretty much stymied when required to suggest that the man who penned “to be or not to be” would ever say something like “Why all this talk of the practical?; what can be found there but the predictable…the generic?”

Speaking of generic, Brad Foster’s set—random bolts of colored cloth and three wooden arches—certainly qualifies. His lighting is better, but at this stage in its development—which is evidently ongoing, as the boundlessly optimistic author plans a staged reading at New York’s Pulse Theater—visibility isn’t necessarily an asset.

“If there are any truths left in the world,” writes the author in his program notes, “history unfortunately demonstrates that most geniuses were usually laughed at, ridiculed, and even persecuted in the beginning of their careers. Only through persistence and luck did they rise to the occasion.”

Let me be the first to wish Naleszkiewicz all the luck in the world.CP