The Pit, The Barbican
Hands on buzzers, here's your starter for 10. No conferring, please. OK, who wrote: "But at my mistress' eye Love's brand new fired". I'll have to hurry you... No? Well, it was Shakespeare in Sonnet 153. And there's plenty more of that in . Not the quiz-show, but seven short plays by some of the cream of American playwrights, all based on Shakespeare's sonnets.
No, not plays, pieces. William Finn, composer/lyricist of Falsettos has taken Sonnet 102 and following on from the final line, "I would not dull you with my song", has written Painting You, a sung scene about an artist obsessively painting his lover. Ntozake Shange has turned Sonnet 128 into Hydraulics Phat Like Mean, a rather baffling dance-drama, rather indifferently performed to music by Chico Freeman.
Marsha Norman contributes a pleasingly elegant daisy chain of betrayal. A wife berates her husband which melts into a confrontation with his lover who accuses her partner who... get the picture? This simple but effective idea is baldly entitled 140. By contrast, the strongest piece labours under the title Terminating, or Lass Meine Schmertzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or Ambivalence. Not that this should put anyone off because it's by Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America. Hilariously neurotic Jewish gay man Hendryk barges into the consulting room of his ex-therapist, demanding that he a) resume therapy for the sake of his sanity, and b) sleep with her. Neither prospect pleases lesbian Esther one iota. Kushner regards bog-standard naturalism as so much undramatic timewasting and instead builds a tight little drama by weaving in dialogues with their prospective partners in separate locations into the scene. The four individual rhythms rub up against each other and the resulting friction buzzes with ideas.
John Guare, most famous for his play Six Degrees of Separation, wins the award for the longest piece but falls foul of what turns out to be a governing principle. It's like adaptating novels: the further you travel from the subject, the closer you get to its heart. It's about spirit rather than being literal. The General of Hot Desire begins with all nine actors playing students studying Sonnets 153 and 154, but rows brew about interpretation and the relevance of art in the face of political crisis. This spins off into a retelling of Genesis predicated on the idea that art is a defence against the silence of God. It all ties into the poetry but despite the comic playing, it's dramatically short-winded.
The Acting Company is designed to train young talent so it would be invidious to single anyone out, but what the hell? Jennifer Rohn has a strong, cool presence and a voice as dry as a Martini, which comes off best in Waiting for Philip Glass, Wendy Wasserstein's smart satire on vapid, drop-dead sophistication. But the prize goes to Stephen DeRosa. He seizes the audience playing comedy with superbly relaxed concentration and recites Sonnet 140 with clarity and true despair. He's also a powerful singer. lt shouldn't be allowed.
plays until 5 June
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