A Smorgasbord of Shakespeare, With Some New Trimmings

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No matter how many Lady Macbeths I see go mad, no matter how many Hamlets I watch have existential crises, I am always game for new productions of Shakespeare. Go ahead: Call me old-fashioned.

It’s a good thing, then, that I’m a critic in a city that, in any given season, has a smorgasbord of works by that old Elizabethan scribbler. What most tickles my fancy are the versions that have their way with the text, updating to fit a director’s vision. Much like what Joel Coen did for his stylistically and narratively brilliant film “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” and what Sam Gold will surely do in a highly anticipated “Macbeth” coming to Broadway. But that’s just the beginning.

At the top of my list this spring is “Fat Ham,” James Ijames’s Black, queer contemporary take on “Hamlet” first seen last year in Morgan Green’s filmed version for the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. In every Ijames play I’ve seen, he exhibits a sharp sense of dialogue and a capacity to reveal the vulnerable sides of his characters along with the aberrant. Ijames’s incisive script transforms the original text into a play centering on how sexuality and violence is spoken about (or not spoken about) in some corners of the Black community.

Saheem Ali will direct this coproduction by the Public Theater and National Black Theater, with previews slated to begin on May 12. Ali is likely to bring his own flair to Ijames’s work; the director has helped to contemporize a number of Shakespeare plays featuring Black and brown casts (including Jocelyn Bioh’s “Merry Wives” at Shakespeare in the Park last summer).

Across the East River in Brooklyn, Theater for a New Audience has brought the challenging “Merchant of Venice” to the Polonsky Shakespeare Center with its own twist: the Black actor John Douglas Thompson as the Jewish Shylock. Like all stagings of “Merchant,” this production, which is scheduled to run through March 6, faces the obstacle of how to reckon with the racism at the heart of the text and how to navigate the peculiar tone of the play, which follows the format of a comedy but is laden with tragedy. Arin Arbus, who directs, creates a modern “Merchant” that interrogates the play’s problematic language and themes and introduces more nuances among the character’s relationships. Issues of sexism and queerness are also surfaced, alongside the central matter of race.

Also recontextualizing Shakespeare with a political bent will be Spiderwoman Theater’s “Misdemeanor Dream,” scheduled to run at La MaMa from March 10-27. Native Americans are rarely represented in theater, on or off the stage. So, with a cast that includes 20 Indigenous performers from First Nations, this production is already something novel.

Inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — one of Shakespeare’s most delightful plays to produce, in my opinion, because of its countless opportunities for magic — “Misdemeanor Dream” will use the whimsy of Shakespeare’s original text to introduce the audience to the fantastical mythologies of Indigenous people. Even if Robin Goodfellow isn’t here to invite mischief into the lives of lovers and friends, there will be other tricksters and spirits to take his place.

Speaking of spirits, plenty of those roam the McKittrick Hotel, where Emursive’s popular production of Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More” reopened this month after a nearly two-year Covid shutdown. The long-running show that has changed the game for immersive theater has made some necessary changes in response to the pandemic: new masks, an updated ventilation system and revised safety protocols. The space itself has also been spruced up and redecorated for audiences to explore — that is, between chasing Macbeth through witch orgies and foreboding woods.

Rounding out what will be a great couple of months for stans of the Scottish play, following the return of “Sleep No More” and Coen’s film, will be a fresh “Macbeth” opening on Broadway on April 28 at the Longacre Theater. (Previews are set to begin March 29.) Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga (who in 2020 starred in an engrossing “Hamlet” at St. Ann’s Warehouse) will lead a multicultural cast of actors including Amber Gray, who will play the ill-fated Banquo. (It will be her first Broadway role after her long run as the beloved Persephone in “Hadestown.”)

It’s too early to say what else this production, directed by Sam Gold, will offer, but Gold is no stranger to Shakespeare, having taken on several stunning productions with renowned talents of the stage and screen, including Glenda Jackson in “King Lear,” Oscar Isaac in “Hamlet” and Craig and David Oyelowo in “Othello.” We do know music will be on the menu; “Macbeth” will feature an original score by the singer-songwriter and violinist Gaelynn Lea.

Spring always has plenty to offer: movies, TV shows, art exhibitions and more. Still, the theater is what most draws my attention — because, like an indecisive young Dane once said, “the play’s the thing.”

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