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“I want to know why it’s more fun to talk about Shakespeare than to watch Shakespeare,” declares Penelope (Amal Saade), cheerful patron of the fictitious theater company 38th Pie. Kathleen Akerley better hope Penelope is right about that: Fear, Akerley’s unruly and overlong but whip-smart comedy about playmaking, is a talk about Shakespeare that goes on for three hours—longer than any of the three productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen this summer, in fact.
Akerley is well schooled in the kinds of intra-company debates and unscheduled backer appeasement sessions that form the substance of this agreeable yack-fest. She’s run Longacre Lea, her (nonfictional) nonprofit theatrical concern, for 18 years, staging a new production each August. In its first decade, her company specialized in Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, and Eugène Ionesco. More recently, it’s become a showcase for Akerley’s own writing, which aspires to a similarly demanding strain of erudition.
The premise of Fear is that 38th Pie has resolved—on account of the strings attached to Penelope’s generous donation—to do its first Shakespeare. The company’s seven members must decide, via an inefficient but democratic process endemic to nonprofit theater companies, which one and how. Should they allow the audience to vote on what play they’ll see each night, 10 minutes before curtain? What about borrowing a trick from improv comedy shows and allowing the crowd to specify elements like nudity, silence, contemporary prose, or an emphasis on background characters?
The players—a half-dozen youngish locals plus a more seasoned British actor played by non-British Longacre regular Michael Glenn—vigorously debate the merits of their preferred texts (Hamlet and MacBeth, mostly) and concepts. Supplying them all with things to say allows Akerley to unburden herself of at least the beginnings of several essays (or dissertations) worth of insights and frustrations on the topic of why we’re still so hung up on Mr. Shakespeare, four centuries in the ground. (Colonialism, but that’s not the only answer, one of her characters monologues.)
The actors are varied and comfortable enough in their skins that they don’t all sound like mouthpieces for her. Singling out individuals among the 38th Pie players for praise seems inappropriate; the entire ensemble is good, and believable as a group of longtime collaborators. (Most of them have worked for Akerley before.) Saade’s warm performance makes Penelope feel like more than just a functionary, but that’s what the character is—a way of forcing the others to translate their discussions from actor-shorthand into plain talk. Penelope is paying to keep the lights on, so her questions must be indulged and her (gentle) suggestions entertained.
This conceit will ring true to theater people—and may ring baffling or insufferable to any civilians who happen to see it. Me? I liked it. I liked it so much that I hope Akerley will take a scalpel to it.
The problem is that she has a six-episode season’s worth of material about this company, which makes a few subplots—particularly those concerning budding romances or fraying friendships among the actors—feel underserved despite an expansive run-time. It’s possible for a three-hour play to be too short, of course, but that’s not the problem, here. Rather, Fear lacks sufficient momentum to power Act Two’s hour-plus, wherein we see too many of the productions proposed in Act One up on their feet, as theater-folk say. (A silent Hamlet influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune has the good sense to wrap up before the joke runs dry.) After several of these vignettes, the piece wheels round to what feels like a well-earned, roundly satisfying deus ex machina ending. Only it doesn’t end there. Ironically, one of its funnier shows-within-the-show is a superhero parody called the The Coda Crime, extrapolated from Prince Hamlet’s line about “some vicious mole of nature.”
Akerley’s reluctance to slay her darlings is understandable. Her writing is so smart, and the ensemble so appealing, that there are no bad scenes, just duplicative ones. She can’t just excise the material that doesn’t propel the narrative because there’s little narrative to speak of.
What there is, is, um, plenty of speech to narrate about. Akerley is a real talent, one in desperate need of an editor/dramaturg who’s as smart as she is. And as fearless, too.
At The Callan Theatre, Catholic University, through Sept. 4 3801 Harewood Road NE. $15-$20. (202) 460-2188. longacrelea.org.