CARDENIO: This contemporary effort is tedious, meandering, and bereft of the poetry and rueful human insight the Bard wraps into his comedies.
Cardenio, an early-17th-century play in which Shakespeare may well have had a hand, has been MIA since its debut and will doubtless remain so. Eminent Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt and dramaturgical collage artist Charles L. Mee have not rummaged in the back of some closet to unearth a missing masterpiece. To produce their retooled Cardenio, they instead took a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, with which they took a lovely vacation in Umbria and came up with a protracted contemporary comedy inspired by the Bard in general and the probable subject manner of Cardenio in particular. Some of the collaborators’ magical Umbrian holiday (the wine! the art! the pecorino!) does make it into the text — something one hopes does not qualify the authors for a tax write-off — but, alas, little of the magic itself.
You might think Greenblatt and Mee would be the perfect team for this stunt being pulled off by the American Repertory Theatre (at the Loeb Drama Center through June 8). Among Shakespeare specialists, Greenblatt has the literary, if not the literal, heft of Harold Bloom, and Mee is as prodigious a recycler as the Bard himself. Here the pair transplant a group of young Americans to a romantic Italian villa for a weekend wedding party that’s knocked awry by assorted Bardic devices augmented by one from Don Quixote in which a suspicious husband prevails upon his best friend (here named Will) to test his new wife’s fidelity by hitting on her. That set in motion, the groom’s Player-King-and-Queen parents turn up brandishing, they say, the lost play of Shakespeare, which they want the nuptial revelers to put on. They also have in tow an actress some of the crowd once knew who will conveniently round out a quartet of mix-and-rematch lovers reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s.
The play the parents are pushing, as Mom explains in a giddy but still awkward aria of exposition, is based on the Don Quixote–derived Cardenio that was performed at least twice by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, in 1613, and registered but not published in 1653, when it was attributed to Shakespeare and sometime collaborator John Fletcher. The manuscript was alleged to have resurfaced in 1727, when Lewis Theobald rewrote it as Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers. Indeed, part of what is presented here as the play within the play, performed (and panned) by the wedding party, is lifted straight from Double Falshood.
This all sounds ingenious, and Greenblatt and Mee throw in Shakespearean fillips ranging from overheard conversations and confused romantic yearning to a malignant confidante and a hammy rude mechanical. The second act even finds the whole assemblage gotten up in Elizabethan garb, the traveling-player parents apparently having arrived in a costume truck. But this new Cardenio is tedious, meandering, and bereft of the poetry and rueful human insight Shakespeare wraps into his comedies. Some of it is written in a sort of rhythmic blank verse, but the sentiments are trite, and the only thing that’s remotely rhapsodic is the resident cook’s explication of his pasta dishes.