To step into “Shakespeare at the Yale Rep” might well be to venture into the “dark backward and abysm of time.” But the first image that greets visitors couldn’t be more bright and colorful: Avery Brooks, arms flung wide, exults in a colorful feathered robe as King Lear in a lavish Olmec-inspired 2004 production. In some ways, the effect of the exhibition is bittersweet, presenting viewers with the visual fossils of shows they will never see. On the other hand, images like Brooks’ impassioned Lear, much like Shakespeare’s memorable turns of phrase, stick in the mind after the viewer has left the space of the exhibit.
Composed of posters and production stills of plays from 2012 all the way back to 1971, this exhibit is fairly minimal. The images on the walls are numbered, but not labeled. One could, hypothetically, treat the exhibition as a game, matching photos with productions. But it is more fruitful to take advantage of the exhibit guides provided, as they identify each production, its director, and the pictured actors. Unfortunately, the guide neglects to note which roles those actors are playing. The upshot is that looking at the production photos is still something of a guessing game: Is the half-clothed figure in the Tempest shot Ariel or Caliban? Are those red-cloaked figures in the “Troilus and Cressida” photo Trojans or Myrmidons?
After the Brooks “Lear” picture, the exhibit’s antechamber has posters and photos from ’70s productions, many directed by the prolific Alvin Epstein. Notably, the posters, such as a grainy shot of Stonehenge on a “Macbeth” playbill, here seem strikingly of-their-moment, in a way the production photos do not, even the ones in black and white. These posters seem especially dated compared to the one 21st-century poster provided, the stylish advertisement for the Rep’s upcoming production of “The Winter’s Tale.”
The main attraction, really, lies in the production photos, and much of the fun is in the game of spot-the-celebrity. In the hallway you can find Christopher Walken as Angelo in “Measure for Measure” and Meryl Streep as someone in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Is she Helena? Hermia? Again, more exact captions in the exhibit guide would come in handy.) Once you get to the tastefully lit main exhibit room, you can find Paul Giamatti as the melancholy Jacques in “As You Like It” and James Earl Jones, lavishly dressed in gold and purple, as the title role in “Timon of Athens,” Shakespeare’s criminally underrated tale of conspicuous consumption, economic collapse and disenfranchised cynicism. This rarely-performed play was relevant when Jones did it in 1980, following the second oil crisis, and is even more relevant today; seeing its poster and production photo here is a special treat.
The production photos boast many other gems: an absurdist “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” where the “fantastical Spaniard,” Don Adriano de Armado, is bedecked in a rainbow ruff and overdone eyeliner; an especially acrobatic rendition of the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene from 2011, with Romeo donning red high-top sneakers; a shot from a show intriguingly titled “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella,” where an all-female ensemble stands wearing costumes from times and places as diverse as medieval Europe, ancient Greece, and imperial China; a nerdy Malvolio (complete with striped yellow knee socks) clumsily wooing the flabbergasted Olivia in a shot from a mod-style “Twelfth Night.” Finally, in a surprising photo sure to give anyone familiar with “Comedy of Errors” a chuckle, the usually unseen character Nell, an impossibly fat woman described in a comedic monologue by Dromio, the terrified object of her mistaken affection, is imagined as a pair of ginormous puppet hands reaching through windows in the set to fondle a horrified Dromio.
Obviously these photos and posters are most rewarding to one with a knowledge of Shakespeare. But images like the spry Pandarus facilitating, with a lascivious grin, the encounter of the titular couple in “Troilus and Cressida,” are scintillating in their own right and would certainly motivate a casual observer to find out more.
The longest-running of many exhibitions going up as a part of Shakespeare at Yale, “Shakespeare at Yale Rep” opened this Monday and runs through June in the Whitney Humanities Center.