Beverly and the Bard

“If there really is such a thing as turning in one’s grave, Shakespeare must get a lot of exercise.” When George Orwell penned this gem he was skewering a local theatre production of The Tempest lost at sea, but he could as easily have been referring to the risks run recently by the Beverly Arts Center. Straying past 105th street, Chicago ceases to feel like much of a metropolis; the spaces between the buildings lengthen, the number of strollers skyrocket, and the danger of tripping over a white picket fence and falling victim to a Golden Retriever starts to seem like a real possibility. Tucked within this sleepy hamlet is a sleek and sunlit art museum that for the last month has hosted “As They Like: Chicago-Artists Visualize Shakespeare. “

Painting Shakespeare is akin to writing about the Sistine Chapel in a pre-Kodak epoch; you know you can’t capture the value, texture, and variety of the colors stretched out on the ceiling above your head with some canny metaphor or lyrical prose.  The same sense of the ineffable holds true with a Macbeth soliloquy.  The best the draughtsman can hope for is to deepen someone else’s appreciation of the words and, in reality, you’ll be lucky just to get anyway without embarrassment.

A few of the artists in Beverly fall short of their subject, but most survive their brush with the bard without cheapening the original…which is to say that the exhibition shines.

The show is heavy on portraits of the plays’ characters. The artistic challenge of drama is that there is no single way a character’s face is set, King Lear’s visage morphs with each wizened actor that takes him on.  The artists embrace this protean personality to the extent that, sans caption, it would difficult for even the most knowledgeable Shakespeare buff to be able to tell who each character is.  In painter Richard Laurent’s “Lear” the tragic monarch sports dark shades, a full beard, and a merry face; swap his robes and he could double for Santa in a Coke commercial. Another work by Maureen Warren, transports Romeo and Juliet to Japan where the lovers’ pathos-packed embrace takes place in kimonos and layers of Kabuki makeup.

Other interpretations of the Shakespearean corpus are more conceptual mind benders. “Desdemona’s handkerchief “ feels like a meditation on what has replaced those dainty, silken lady-like objects of late.  The eye-catching work is a paper napkin surrounded by a cocoon of melted bottle-caps.  It’s hard to imagine Iago plotting out his vile revenge while relying on a supply of Kleenex. Our disposable culture may have prevented the odd Venetian murder but it appears also to have cost us a convenient, oft-utilized plot device.

In Jonathan Franklin’s “Richard and his Rivals,” the faces of Richard III and his murdered foes (scowling, shriveled gray specters farcically adorned with rich headdresses) throw the Shakespearean theme into high relief. The spoils mock the lifeless masks; the only legacy of ambition is the body count.

Not all of the art purported to be profound; some of it was just punny. In a small painting by Deborah Moris Lader, two anthropomorphized bucks are decked out in somber 15th century garb.  The deer-one with a respectable rack of antlers, the other equipped with a money-lender’s scales are disputing over what seems to be a hefty legal document. The caption reads: “The Merchant of Venison.”  This is followed by a portrait of a bodice-wearing rodent about to be electrocuted by a pantalooned stranger, currently entitled “The Tazing of the Shrew.”

It’s a credit to the collection that the most popular plays to act are not the ones occupying the lion-share of the canvas. Hamlet is not exactly neglected-the walls put up with plenty of water-logged Ophelias- but it’s astounding how much space was given over to works next to no one reads, let alone performs.  Scenes from “Pericles, “Timon of Athens,” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” apparently can inspire creative output as readily as their more famous cousins.  And therein lies the power of this exhibition. If when gallery-goers arrive in Beverly the name Shakespeare just conjures a cryptic sonnet they were press-ganged into perusing at the age of fourteen, then “As They Like It” is a polite but insistent invitation to visit the folios afresh. These verses, the exhibition at Beverly screams, belong more to hipsters than to curmudgeons. I have never read “The Winter’s Tale”, but after standing near Jose Agustin Andreu’s painting–a bewitching, acrylic depiction of Hermione lost in stony grief–that fact is actually starting to bother me.

Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St. Through April 1. Monday-Friday, 9am-9pm; Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 1pm-6pm. Free. (773)445-3838. beverlyartcenter.org