The most interesting — and fully fleshed — character is actress, author, producer, and director Margaret Webster, who helmed the historic 1943 production that finally brought a black Othello (Paul Robeson) to Broadway. Webster serves here as narrator (and as Puck would say, “an actor too perhaps, if I see cause”). Maggor’s erect but savvy Webster, deploying low tones and for a time a cigarette (she claims to have a “special permit”), comments on the changes in Shakespearean acting in America — and not just by Americans — across the past 120 years or so. But Maggor does not seem to have a thesis regarding the march from plummy musicality to a more natural approach. Yes, Lisa Gay Hamilton’s bemused and bluesy 2000 Ophelia (in a television movie starring and directed by Campbell Scott) trumps Ellen Terry’s earlier and more sonorous one. But 19th-century Irish-American actress Ada Rehan’s skirt-swirling Celtic Katharina from The Taming of the Shrew has more charm than Elizabeth Taylor’s squeaky, barking Kate.
Shakespeare’s Actresses in America has value as an intelligent demonstration for the cognoscenti as well as a showcase for its creator. But Coonrod adds some weird theatrical touches, in particular a long moment near the end when Maggor, preparing to present female Hamlets Sarah Bernhardt and Webster herself, repairs upstage and, carefully opening her gown, fastens its shoulders to a couple of cables. I thought she was going to fly — though I couldn’t imagine why, this not being Peter Pan Actresses in America. Instead she emerges from the cocoon of the dress in boots and a gauzy blue bag that carries her from Hamlet to Ophelia. She doesn’t fly. And despite the skill of its presentation, Maggor’s show doesn’t either.
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