Shakespeare's plays have always been open to myriad interpretations: in what they are meant to say, in how they should rightly be performed, and even as to who their true author might have been. The Dark Lady Players’ new environmental work, entitled Shakespeare’s Gospel Parodies, is one possible take on the meaning of the oeuvre. This production highlights some subtle (and other not-so-obscure) Biblical and Christian references within the works of the Bard. Although the explanations for various elements are at times difficult to follow, the overall piece sheds some new light on the plays. In addition, the "living museum" performance, set as a walkthrough in West Park Church, is a delight to take in. This is a performance worth going on a journey both to and with. The performance is composed of nine scenes from disparate Shakespearean plays. These include both the comic and the tragic, ranging from Bottom's ridiculous performance in the Pyramus and Thisbe play to Shylock's conviction in the Venetian court to Desdemona's murder at the hands of her husband, Othello. In each scene, a specific Biblical allusion or reference is pointed out. Docents lead the patrons to each of the "paintings" and then give lengthy descriptions of what the viewers are about to see and what they should take away from it. The scenes themselves are played out in order to elucidate the theory that has just been expounded. At times, certain episodes are frozen in the middle to continue the explication and then resumed.
Although interesting and clearly extensively researched, the explanations of the Christian references in the plays feel at times too much like an academic lecture and not enough like a night's entertainment. When there is too much information to take in at once, it is easy to lose track of the meaning of the scenes being displayed. Also, some of these scenes, because taken out of context, might be difficult to place in terms of the original dramatic narratives from which they are derived, especially if one is not already familiar with Shakespeare's plays. In addition, some excerpts seem longer than necessary to prove the point that has been set out.
Some of the connections drawn here seem a tad far-fetched. Although an interesting contention to explore, the scene in which a human is eaten in the forest of As You Like It may be a little too ridiculous in this performance to be believed as a legitimate interpretation of the play. Despite this, there are a lot of compelling details that one can learn both about the plays and about the development of Christian myth from this performance. Much of the information is worth investigating further, as it could open up new angles from which to analyze these oft-performed and -studied texts.
The performances of each scene are delightful and the actors come to this material with enthusiasm and understanding. They vary each character that they play well (each performer being part of three scenes from three different plays) and make them all seem to be full-fledged people and not just symbols or metaphors.
The biggest thrill in this production is the clever usage of the fabulous performance location. The convention of making this performance into an art museum tour adds a fun flair to what might otherwise feel too much like an instructional lecture. West Park Church is a gem of New York architecture, worth visiting in its own right. The scenes are well-suited to the rooms in which they are placed. The Woodshed Collective has done a brilliant job of turning this environmental setting into a logical locale for these Shakespearean scenes. Each of these chambers is charming, filled with fascinating odds and ends of objects as well as embracing the overall decor of seemingly intentional decay.
All in all, this is a fun and unique theatre outing. There is something here for the uninitiated Shakespeare audience as well as for the Elizabethan aficionado. Each scene is like discovering a little hidden gem; it may be a tad rough around the edges, but what is discovered within has great beauty and value.