John Minigan’s splendidly funny and smart Breaking The Shakespeare Code brings the audience back to 2003, to the Drama department on the campus of a small women’s college in Massachusetts. Wide-eyed, 18-year old neophyte actress Anna (Miranda Jonte) pays a visit to an acting instructor (Don’t say “professor”. Not yet!…) named Curt (Tim Weinert). Curt teaches “Intro to Acting”, but Anna is not trying to get a space in his class. At the recommendation of a friend, the bubbly teen– who starred as “Portia” in Julius Caesar in high school– wants Curt to help her sharpen her skills for an audition for an upcoming college production of Romeo and Juliet. After all, Curt has a reputation as a great teacher. He also, however, has a reputation of being something of a smartass. Before you can say, “Experience is the teacher of all things!”, a certain chemistry starts bubbling between the idealistic student and her 27-year old mentor-to-be, who’s initially reluctant to take on this new job. But it’s not exactly a “rom com” style chemistry between this younger woman and an older man. It’s more like the test tube experiment ready to explode in the lab at the building across the campus. Curt painstakingly guides Anna through a redux of her scenes as Portia– complete with lying on the floor, shouting, and high emotions. There’s even the line, “You’re not a smartass. You’re a first class a**hole!” (that’s NOT from Shakespeare, FYI…)
How do we discover that Curt is a good teacher? Moment by moment, line by line, emotion by emotion, the audience witnesses Anna transform from a performer in a high school play to the first phase of being a “serious” actor– right before our eyes in the black box space of 440 Studios. The young thespian learns that acting is indeed work, as she eventually states with deadpan simplicity at the play’s conclusion: “This is a hard game!”. But for the audience, watching the idiosyncratic three-act “mating dance” of sorts between Jonte as Anna and Weinert as Curt is a true delight from the very start.
Act 1 is, to state the obvious, just the beginning. Act 2 shows a more mature Anna returning to the very same rehearsal space six years later, where Curt is still teaching. Anna is now boasting a solid acting resume, composed largely of offbeat musicals. However, she is seeking Curt’s help again: this time for an audition at New York City’s prestigious Julliard School. Meanwhile, the postulating professor’s career was derailed in part by “un scandale mineur”– which is only one of the revelations between the characters in the second act. The audience also learns that while Shakespeare has continued to serve as Anna’s creative muse, Curt has put a “moratorium” on doing plays by the 16th century author, instead choosing, shall we say, more “accessible” projects (and thus allowing playwright Minigan to poke some gentle fun at Neil Simon!). What’s “professional” and what’s “personal” between Anna and Curt become seriously intertwined– and the playing out of this on stage, with its emotional nuances and intricacies, become the very epitome of the art of acting that the two characters both strive for. Fast forward to 2019, and that intensity between the pair gets even greater with Act 3. Curt, finally a professor, is now an author and fully tenured. Anna, now 34, returns again– this time with her eyes on the role of the princess “Imogen” from Cymbeline. She is also asking herself the question: “What does ‘success’ as an actor really mean?” Is it measured by “commercial” success, or by creative satisfaction? That’s one of the many provocative subjects explored in Breaking the Shakespeare Code. Act 3 is also the moment when Anna and Curt finally confront their atypical heterosexual relationship. As one of the play’s taglines states, “This is not a romance!” Or is it?
The performances by Miranda Jonte and Tim Weinert are superb. Without the benefit of makeup or excessive costume changes (In the case of Weinert, it’s helpful that professors at small colleges generally don’t change their wardrobe throughout the decades anyway…), the two actors successfully manage to age themselves through the play’s run through their acting skills. The thoroughly charming Jonte morphs from a “floating-on-air-currents” girl to a sophisticated woman who still has that 18-year old enthusiasm. Weinart, who bears more than a passing resemblance to actor Paul Rudd, doesn’t alter his looks much for in the play’s 16-year time span (For the record, Paul Rudd never seems to age much either…), but the actor skillfully displays his nascent world-weariness through his onstage persona.
There may be only two actors in this play, but the third character is the omnipresent spirit of the late William Shakespeare. With its snappy and smart dialogue, character evolution, and exploration of that ageless battle of the sexes, The Bard would indeed approve of Breaking The Shakespeare Code.
(Photos by Ben Asen.)
Breaking The Shakespeare Code by John Minigan, directed by Stephen Brotebeck, continues at The Black Box at 440 Studios (440 Lafayette St, New York City) through Sun, June 2nd, 2019. The production stage manager is Kyrie McCormick. For more info, visit www.heyjonte.com. Purchase tickets here.