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A 'new' Shakespeare play gets a lively production at the Ivory

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Cardenio

Erik Kuhn in "Cardenio" at St. Louis Shakespeare. Handout photo

Here’s the exciting thing about “Cardenio,” the new production at St. Louis Shakespeare: 10 minutes before the ending, you can’t decide if it will end with two weddings or four funerals.

That’s because — unlike most Shakespeare plays — you never have seen it before. And it’s so suspenseful, you really can’t tell where it’s going.

Of course, “Cardenio” is not exactly by Shakespeare. It’s thought that he co-authored the play with John Fletcher, his successor as the “house playwright” for the King’s Men, a London theater troupe. They based it on an episode in a then-new novel, “Don Quixote.”

But the script disappeared. (People speculate that it was lost in a fire.) More than a century later, writer Lewis Theobald claimed to have three copies of the play, but they went missing, too. (Another fire?) Nevertheless, Theobald produced a play called “Double Falsehood” that he described as a new version of “Cardenio,” with his own improvements.

Skip ahead almost 300 years. Several contemporary writers have also come up with playable versions of “Cardenio,” working from “Double Falsehood,” textual analysis and, of course, their own imaginations. In fact, the program for St. Louis Shakespeare says “‘Cardenio’ by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher/Re-imagined by Gregory Doran” of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Shakespeare scholars no doubt are going to enjoy debating authorship for years to come. The rest of us can forget about that. We can just enjoy an exciting new play that feels weirdly familiar.

Set in Spain, the play tells the story of a young Spanish aristocrat, Cardenio (Erik Kuhn, in fine form), who is hesitant to tell his demanding mother (Larisa Alexander) that he wants to marry an entirely appropriate young woman, Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin), who was his childhood friend. Before he can work up the nerve, he is summoned to court to be a good influence on the Duke’s second son, a dashing cad named Fernando (Jason J. Little, who gives Fernando all the swagger we could want but needs to concentrate on diction).

Fernando is in love with Dorotea (Lexie Baker), the beautiful daughter of a wealthy farmer. Dorotea has money but no title, so Fernando is sure they can’t marry. He ravishes her anyway, taking what he wants with no heed of the consequences. He forgets all about her when he sets eyes on Luscinda, aristocratic as well as beautiful. But, believing herself pledged to Cardenio, she’d rather die or take the veil than marry him.

Cardenio, not knowing of her refusal and feeling betrayed by his friend and his beloved, goes to live as a madman among the shepherds, where Dorotea now lives too, disguised as a boy.

How ever will all this work out?

Director Donna Northcott, who founded St. Louis Shakespeare, gets us there with swift action that mixes plenty of comedy(at one point members of the ensemble play sheep, staring vacantly as they nuzzle wooden posts or chew cud) with heartbreaking tragedy.

Both Lampkin and Baker sum up their characters’ wretched situations in thoughtful, clear monologues that map out the only acceptable futures they can engineer on their own. “This is what comes of forcing women against their will,” mourns Luscinda’s father, Don Bernardo (crisply played by Colin Nichols). Indeed, this “Cardenio” can be read as a Renaissance version of “no means no.”

We see echoes of plays we do know again and again: the girl who hides her sex (like Viola in “Twelfth Night” or Rosalind in “As You Like It”), the price of lost virginity (which Hero is wrongly forced to pay in “Much Ado About Nothing”), the madman in the wild (like Edgar in “King Lear”).

It also looks like Shakespeare productions we see today, with a dash of Spanish glamour for good measure. Scenic designer Matthew Stuckel, working with movable pieces that keep the action brisk, incorporates a series of pointed archways that hint at Spain’s Moorish past. Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler makes the same point with gorgeous costumes for Dorotea and her maid, who wear wide trousers under heavy skirts slit up the front. And corseted white dresses for the ladies and billowing white shirts for the men evoke fluffy sheep in a flash.

Some may ask, “Is it Shakespeare?” Maybe that’s the wrong question. We get caught up, naturally, in issues of authorship. But in the end, what matters is what we see with our own eyes, right onstage. In “Cardenio,” we see a lot to savor.

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Judith Newmark is the theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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