With Cardenio, St. Louis Shakespeare Makes the Most of the Bard's Lost Play 

Gerardo (Karl Hawkins) watches Fernando (Jason J. Little) ​plot to steal​ the affections of​ Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin)​.

RON JAMES

Gerardo (Karl Hawkins) watches Fernando (Jason J. Little) ​plot to steal​ the affections of​ Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin)​.

Cardenio is billed as Shakespeare's "lost" play, a work that the historical record shows was performed in Shakespeare's lifetime but that left no other trace of its existence. This tragicomic romance, inspired by an episode found in Cervantes' Don Quixote, stayed hidden for many years. A version was then discovered in 1727 and reworked by an editor. Three hundred years later, Gregory Doran, the artistic director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, painstakingly crafted yet another version, using the found copy, Cervantes' story, some bits written by Shakespeare's occasional collaborator John Fletcher and some original work.

The revivified Cardenio is now being mounted by St. Louis Shakespeare at the Ivory Theatre through October 15. It's a strange work populated by surprisingly passive heroes, self-righteous parents undone by pride and a tremendously devious villain. Despite a few bumps here and there, though, it feels satisfyingly like Shakespeare, even if it leaves you with a sense of profound relief: If one of Shakespeare's plays had to be misplaced for 400 years, at least it was this one and not Macbeth.

Cardenio is a nobleman of Andalusia (beautifully evoked by Madeline Schneider's warm lights and Matthew Stuckel's airy set of columns and arches) who loves the Lady Luscinda, but cannot marry her without the approval of his mother Camilla. Just as Cardenio broaches the idea, he's called to court to serve as a friend and a good influence on Fernando, the Duke's wastrel of a younger son. Erik Kuhn captures Cardenio's noble bearing and obedient nature well. Despite being frequently being compared to the Greek hero Perseus for his horsemanship and bravery, he comes across as a milquetoast mama's boy, all too willing to do whatever is asked of him.

Fernando (Jason J. Little) is charismatic, brash and something of a ladies' man (he obnoxiously compares wooing women to breaking the spirit of a wild mare). He yearns for Dorotea (Lexie Baker), who doesn't reciprocate his feelings — but when Fernando takes her hand, she briefly loses herself in the fantasy of being a prince's wife, the carrot Fernando dangles to sweeten his offer. She succumbs (or is forced; even the characters are uncertain how Fernando succeeded), only to awaken to a Dear Dorotea note delivered by Fernando's long-suffering servant Gerardo (a mostly mute but very good Karl Hakwins, who conveys his inner dialogue through eye rolls and burning glares). Fernando then sets his sights on Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin), which precipitates the destruction of Cardenio, Luscinda and their respective parents. Poor Dorotea is left with only the best line of the play: "I am now become the tomb of mine own honor," bleakly delivered by Baker.

click to enlarge Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin) is distraught after being told by her father that he wants her to forget Cardenio. - RON JAMES
  • RON JAMES
  • Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin) is distraught after being told by her father that he wants her to forget Cardenio.

Act One is 90 minutes long, and at times feels even longer. Director Donna Northcott keeps things moving, but Cardenio suffers from kitchen sink syndrome. Gregory Doran had quite a bit of material to incorporate and integrate, and it feels as if all of it was included in his rebuilt script. Numerous small scenes give characterization to Camilla (Larisa Alexander) and Luscinda's father Bernardo (Colin Nichols), but don't add much to the plot. Both Alexander and Nichols are excellent as bereaved parents who process their feelings as bitter anger (Camilla) and dolorous weeping (Bernardo), so it's hard to begrudge these moments, but Cardenio himself could have used more fleshing out.

Act Two is brisker at an hour and includes a terrifically entertaining Northcott set-piece in which all of the actors playing nobles gamely double as sheep. Cardenio has been reduced to madness in the mountains, but a chance encounter with a disguised Dorotea leads him to a sadly defiant Luscinda, now cloistered in a nunnery. Even there she's not safe from the rapacious Fernando. Shannon Lampkin eloquently collapses in silent, horrified defeat at the sight of the man who has stolen her happiness, while Jason J. Little's ear-to-ear grin displays all the smugness of the rich kid whose lusts will soon be satisfied.

Cardenio is a romance, so all accounts will be happily settled by the end, save one. When Fernando is finally brought to task for his numerous misdeeds, forgiveness is forthcoming from all, even vengeful mother Camilla. Some of us were really hoping she'd break his ankle with her walking stick, and Larisa Alexander's steely gaze suggests Camilla has thought about it, too.

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