A Bit of the Bard | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Bit of the Bard 


at the Red Lion Pub

George S. Kaufman put it pungently enough: "The trouble with Shakespeare is that you never get to sit down unless you're a king." It's just as well; no actor should relax while the bard's coming out of his mouth.

In his hour-long one-person show, A Bit of the Bard, Darryl Maximilian Robinson (now there's a name meant to tread the boards!) hardly sits still for a second. His creation is the happily histrionic, contagiously blustering 17th-century actor Sir Richard Drury Kemp-Kean. It seems that while performing Henry V sometime in 1660, this fustian thespian (who calls himself the collateral descendant, "more ebony than ivory," of a randy Scottish maiden who married a Saracen king during the Crusades) was hit by a bolt of lightning--which, before blacking out, he took for a review from God. Kemp-Kean awoke to find himself "up to my bum" in snow somewhere outside Vail, Colorado (where Bit was first developed).

Adjusting to this very new world was no cinch.

Mistaken for the ambassador from Senegal, Kemp-Kean reminisces, he was forced to attend a Republican fund-raiser. There he ad-libbed a keynote speech on the contribution of young Republicans to indigenous Africans. Screaming that there's been no such thing, His Lordship told the Reaganites where they might possibly get off--and the real ambassador, delighted with the publicity, hired him as a double. Thus was improbably launched the second acting career (300 years later) of the world's greatest Shakespearean actor.

Attired in full evening dress, sipping wine, and regaling us with anecdotes told with a foppish lisp (they're interspersed among the ten selections from the bard), Robinson/Kemp-Kean combines a confident technique (including a strong feel for the rolling rhythms of blank verse and the high emotional quaver of practiced passion), ebullient high spirits, and a chameleon-quick, melodiously fine-tuned voice. With quicksilver unpredictability, that versatile instrument can jump to early Marlon Brando or suddenly ape a Restoration Jerry Lewis.

It's rare to find an American actor doing Shakespeare who prizes technique over inspiration--the influence of the Method is still so enormous. Happily, for all his technique, Robinson seldom sacrifices either for the other. In Jaques's "seven ages of man" speech (from As You Like It) each image registers as if he had just seen it, while Romeo's baffled reaction to banishment sounds every note of a crushed adolescent contemplating the end of his world. In bravura contrast, Robinson opposes Master Ford's farcical jealousy (The Merry Wives of Windsor) with Othello's awestruck disillusionment (in the latter Robinson achieves a heartbreaking simplicity, a stark change from his usual ruffles and flourishes).

The only irritant is Robinson's penchant for injecting too many voices into his monologues. Launce's defense of his dog Crab (Two Gentlemen of Verona) becomes a cascading embarrassment of impersonations that distracts us from the situation (the servant apologizing for the dog's deposits). Likewise, the bitchy banter of Beatrice and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) would be better served by hewing to the skewering lines than by gratuitous mimicry and overworked expressions. When, however, Robinson plays the moment at bedrock, as in his restrained and broken Lear or in Puck's moving farewell speech, there's damn little to separate us from Shakespeare. In a jollier key, Robinson can goose a speech for pure operatic overkill, as in Petruchio's hot-and-cold harangue on Katharina's wedding day or the glorious prologue to Henry V.

Robinson ends the too-short labor of love quietly singing the lovely folk song "The Parting Glass," as he holds one up to salute the audience. I hope time-traveling Sir Richard decides to remain in the 20th century for a long second coming. Here's our glass raised to that bolt of lightning.

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