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FringeNYC: 'Breaking the Shakespeare Code' [Review]

This two-actor game of wits proves there’s a Shakespearean monologue for every situation.

At the end of his Introduction to Acting class, Anna approaches new professor Curt, desperate for his advice for an upcoming Shakespeare audition. This meeting begins a cat-and-mouse game of attraction and ego that spans sixteen years, as circumstances throw the pair together again and again to confront their feelings for one another. Breaking the Shakespeare Code, written by John Minigan and directed by Stephen Brotebeck, is a play for theater people that is at the same time all about chemistry.

A Play About Acting

The play consists of three scenes, one between an 18-year-old Anna convinced of her superior acting skills and the smug acting professor determined to prove her wrong, one the young professional actress and the academic recently tainted by scandal and the final, after all illusions are stripped away and Anna and Curt can truly be honest with one another. Each scene is ostensibly a private coaching session between actor and director, but is in reality so much more than that, as the pair either embrace or deny their attraction for one another.

If there is anything this show proves, it is that actors and directors are absurdly arrogant and self-centered people (though I say this with love). While neither character is very likable to start, they each grow more relatable as they age and we learn more about the motivations and outside lives of Curt and Anna. Watching the pair transform through costume and through personality is one of the highlights of the production, as the play regularly returns to the theme of what changes and what stays the same in a relationship through time.

All About the Text

The rapid-fire dialogue is difficult to follow at first, but ultimately grows exciting and extremely entertaining, as Anna and Curt are constantly playing mind games with one another and you never know when they are or aren't "acting." The better your knowledge of Shakespeare and of acting in general, the more you will appreciate this play, since the characters referenced grow progressively more obscure, starting with Juliet and ending with Princess Imogen from Cymbeline. But whether or not you know the particular play being referenced, what matters is the emotion behind the monologue, which then becomes the emotion the character is dealing with in their own life.

Actors Miranda Jonte and Tim Weinert are fantastic performers in their own right, able to portray characters who are sympathetic even as they conceal their true feelings for one another and actively push the other away. The best moments of the play come toward the end, when they effortlessly segue in and out of the Shakespearean text, able to find and express truth only through another's words. This textual complexity is the heart of Breaking the Shakespeare Code, as decoding the other's feelings becomes the most crucial part of their relationship.

A World Within a Single Room

Of course, some aspects of this production were highly unrealistic, from Anna's drastic jump in acting ability to the idea that an Intro to Acting professor would ever be considered for tenure in the first place. And while portraying a character who ages substantially throughout a play is always difficult, it baffles me why an actress of Jonte's age would ever be chosen to play an 18-year-old girl.

Despite these bumps, Breaking the Shakespeare Code is an exciting, polished performance, one that takes the setting of a bare acting classroom and transforms it into a vibrant world of attraction and deception. It is a play that you need to have taken an acting class and read a few Shakespeare plays to really appreciate, but the energy of the piece carries it through regardless. If the actor's process (or the actor's scandal) is the sort of idea that interests you, then this is your play.

Breaking the Shakespeare Code plays as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at the 64E4 Mainstage. Remaining performances are on the 19th at 5:30 and the 20th at 6:15.

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