by John Stoltenberg

There’s a good chance that watching FEAR—Kathleen Akerley’s playfully subversive new comedy at Longacre Lea about a troupe of actors in the throes of performing Shakespeare—will change your perception of the next play of the Bard’s that you see.

For theater makers, FEAR is a deliciously insider backstage romp sure to tickle the funny bone of anyone who has ever trod the boards or labored behind the scenes. It’s littered with acerbic “let’s put on a show” jokes; it’s astutely directed by Akerley herself; and  it’s got a quirky cast of characters (played nimbly by Tom Carman, Ashley DeMain, Vince Eisenson, Michael Glenn, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Séamus Miller, Amal Saade, and Matthew Alan Ward)  who amusingly embody the  clash and convergence of  egos, imaginations, and instruments that makes possible live theater.

And for the theatergoer sort, FEAR is curiously mind-altering, because it frames the process of performing Shakespeare in our times as a sport of contemporary concept concocting, a game that  any number can play by any number of rules. FEAR throws our focus onto the process that led up to the product we’re consuming; and in so doing, FEAR makes us a player-participant by prompting us to infer the origin story within what we’re watching—like a delightful invitation to be vicariously present at the creation.

From the audience/spectator point of  view, there’s something strangely redemptive about the experience of watching FEAR, because it dives headlong into all the ambivalences that typically inhibit folks’ enjoyment of Shakespeare’s stories and language (and let’s face it, a lot of the time what’s going on and what’s being said is literally opaque—unless you’ve read the plays beforehand and remember the annotations). Brilliantly, FEAR affirms, makes fun of, and ultimately helps us bypass those ambivalences.

There’s a popular series of Shakespeare’s greatest hits published as No Fear Shakespeare that eliminates the four-century language barrier by placing a contemporary paraphrase on every facing page of each script. Akerley’s title FEAR serves as a winking reminder that for many otherwise culturally alert and literate people, Shakespeare can be scary as shit. And what’s so refreshing about Akerley’s wonderfully iconoclastic approach to that fear is that she doesn’t treat it as a text problem, or as a linguistic obstacle that if only we had more Elizabethan vocabulary drill we could overcome. Instead she does something actually metatheatrical (a word often overused but well earned here).

In Act One we see the theater troupe in a rehearsal room, under the florescent glare of work lights, coming up with diverse production concepts; then in Act Two  we see the same actors playing out their concepts (using scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth), in front of  footlights charmingly crafted from tin cans.  By the time we get to Act Two, we are treated to a cognitive effect that might be described as mind-altering persistence of memory.  What has happened is that having been immersed in the creative process behind what is being performed before our eyes, we are now permitted to experience that inferred inner life of the production as the true text to be comprehended.

Akerley’s plays tend to be not only boldly imaginative dramatic enactments but also discombobulating mental events—and FEAR is no exception. At nearly three hours, it goes on a bit too long; but let’s face it, so does Shakespeare. As for myself, I’ve got a hunch that having seen FEAR will make my next visit to Shakespeare seem richer and quicker.