If you liked the way The Avengers grabbed every Marvel superhero under the sun and thrust him into a two-hour, story-arc-be-damned battle royale, but you felt the film needed a dash of literary pretension, you’re in luck. Bear Productions’ Speare, staged in two parts during Fringe at the Factory Theatre, invites you to dust off your Spark Notes and get your nerd on.
The crux of the show is its combination of different Shakespearean characters under a single narrative arc: Macbeth’s rivals rub shoulders with Othello and a slew of B-level characters in hopes of reclaiming the throne of Scotland. If this sounds about as appealing as a frontal lobotomy performed in two acts, stop reading now – it only gets worse.
“The play,” my program informed me, “takes place during the reign of Macbeth. It is a prequel to Othello and King Lear and a sequel to The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night.” If tonight’s audience was any gauge, this will either set you to rending your program in a scholarly rage, or biting your nails in eager anticipation of what Bear Production might do next year with Hemingway.
(I wrote a play for Fringe that takes place during the reign of The Old Man and the Sea. It’s a prequel to For Whom the Bell Tolls and a sequel to The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. My Hemz didn’t make the cut this year, so maybe I’m just bitter.)
To be fair, Speare, Part I has moments of brilliance. Roger McKeen gives an understated, human rendition of Shakespeare’s Shylock with lines that aren’t even written by Shakespeare.
His achievement is significant: Shylock is the Bard’s most racist, controversial caricature and the reason that The Merchant of Venice, his best comedy, is rarely performed. That Speare’s Shylock is humourous without being inhuman testifies to the savvy of actor and playwright alike.
McKeen and Gehan Kolamba Tantrege (who plays, among other roles, the world’s most benign Othello) revive many a stillborn scene with skillful musicianship woven into the play’s background. Tantrege and McKeen are multitalented performers – you’ll sit up and take notice.
Sadly, no amount of talent can push a Malcolm, Macbeth, or Othello in directions he would never go without completely breaking his character – and this is where Speare falls apart. When all the intricate motives and flaws of its characters are hollowed out for the sake of a feasible plot, the audience is left with a craven Malcolm and a lackey yes-man of an Iago.
Worse, Speare can’t even claim to be an accessible approach to Shakespeare, because its subject matter is Shakespearean in name only. Swap “Malcolm” with “Daenerys” and “Macbeth” with “Robert Baratheon,” and you have a fifty-five minute synopsis of Game of Thrones’ first season.
(Don’t believe me? Malcolm spends most of the show to-ing and fro-ing across a lush mediterranean cityscape in search of funds to procure a ship and an army, with which he might sail across the sea and reclaim his stolen throne on a wintery island to the north. They even mention a eunuch.)
Then there’s the really sticky issue of staging a two-part play during Fringe. When the climax of the first act is little more than the actors assembling on stage, telling you to buy tickets for part two, you can’t help but feel somebody’s hand in your pocket.
I would pay ten dollars to see Roger McKeen’s Shylock – the best performance in the show, and one of the highlights of Fringe – but I don’t know if I’d pay to see it again in part two, when there are so many other great Fringe shows this year, and so little time.
- Spear Part I plays at Venue #12, Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street).
- Show times: July 8 10:30 PM, July 11 1:45 PM, July 14 2:15 PM.
- All individual Fringe tickets are $10 ($5 for FringeKids) at the door (cash only). Tickets are available online at www.fringetoronto.com, by phone at 416-966-1062, in person at The Randolph Centre for the Arts, 736 Bathurst Street (Advance tickets are $11 – $9+$2 service charge)
- Value packs are available if you plan to see at least 5 shows