Critique and creation are two different skills. At least, that's what critics tell ourselves -- and it's borne out by Taking Shakespeare, a play that has lots of interesting ideas about Othello but precious few about itself.
John Murrell's 2013 two-hander, now being staged by Gremlin Theatre, presents a timeworn scenario. An aging college professor, called simply "Prof" (Linda Kelsey), agrees to tutor a failing student named Murph (John A.W. Stephens). The subject is Shakespeare, and Prof agrees to tackle Othello, a play she's privately cherished as "my Shakespeare."
The pair proceed with weekly meetings, taking an act at a time. As they discuss the play's themes and language, Prof begins to drop details about a crisis in her life and career. With her enthusiasm waning and her enrollment dropping off, the unnamed university where she teaches is letting her go. This despite the fact that the dean of humanities is Murph's mother, to whom Prof was once a mentor.
There's some modest suspense regarding how this will affect Murph's own conflicted relationship with his mother, but Murrell isn't particularly interested in developing a plot. Taking Shakespeare is fundamentally about how Prof and Murph learn simultaneously from the Bard and from one another.
The challenge of this approach is that it creates a lot of pressure to make these two characters' interactions consistently engaging, and director Peter Christian Hansen doesn't do much with the little Murrell provides in this respect. The result is a production that holds interest largely for those who can follow the duo's conversations about Othello.
Kelsey explores Prof's full range, but her runway ends before the character can really take off. She never escapes the hoary archetype of the grizzled academic who's devoted her life to a private scholarly passion that never threatens to become public because she barks at anyone who presumes to bring it up. Prof is also saddled with an unslakable thirst for terrible coffee, which gets repeatedly brewed purely to provide stage business.
Meanwhile, Murph is a generic millennial stand-in, with an interest in video games that Prof indulges but never seems to truly understand. Stephens could take this character in any of a number of directions, but doesn't really commit to any of them.
Murrell's failure to sufficiently build these characters means that we just have to take it as a given that their relationship is somehow catalytic. It's unclear what Murph can possibly be saying or doing that Prof doesn't experience with students every semester, and Murph himself is so under-imagined that his Elizabethan epiphany seems contrived. The fact that Murph, who's typically cast as white, is played here by an African-American actor highlights the thinness of the play's discussion of race in Othello.
Every time a potentially interesting wrinkle crops up, Murrell drops it to hurry back to the book. Thus, Taking Shakespeare becomes essentially a seminar about Othello, held on Carl Schoenborn's detailed and comfortably worn living-room set. Sunday's enrollment looked considerably better than Prof reports getting in her classes...maybe Shakespeare isn't so esoteric after all.