Theatre porn for the theatre kids with a healthy dose of murder-mystery, If We Were Villains is a fun romp through the backstage drama of Shakespearean thespians, but it will undoubtedly fret its hour upon the stage for those readers not obsessed with Shakespeare or the theatrical world.

If We Were Villains (April 2017)

M.L. Rio

Flatiron Books

358 pages; $16.50 (Amazon)

When in London last summer, my wife and I went on a whim to see a play entitled The Play that Went Wrong, and it was one of the funniest, most well-produced theatrical comedies I have ever seen. (It’s now showing on Broadway, so I highly encourage you to go see it before the original cast departs). Most of the success of this play could be attributed to a number of typical factors, such as the company’s chemistry, the wonderful casting, the way the writing plays with predictable, community theatre personality tropes, etc.

But for me, what made the play so compelling was its engagement with the behind-the-scenes activity of the actors and the company–the way it raised the proverbial curtain a second time, allowing the audience to see the actors as people within characters, within characters, performing a bad play within a good play. The meta-theatrical layers involved in such a production are simply wonderful, and it reminds of other major productions in that category, such as Frayne’s Noises Off and Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, published in April of 2017, dabbles in such a world through its story of the lives of six young actors attempting to finish their last year at a secluded Shakespearean repertory school in rural Illinois. Opening with main character Oliver facing his impending release from a ten-year prison sentence for murder, Rio sets up a plot line that allows the assumed killer to reveal what really happened in the college by the lake years before, but only under the precondition that no one can be prosecuted for the actions they committed at that time. Despite the rather thin nature of this premise, the story itself remains engaging throughout, and although the ending fails to deliver an ultimately satisfying conclusion, the book truly shines when it treats readers to the on and off-stage drama of a young, budding actor: the acting classes, parties, productions, and love affairs of people learning to be someone, no one, and anyone all at the same time. As a Shakespearean trained actor herself, Rio clearly knows this world inside and out, and the ways in which she imagines the raw, vulnerable experience of learning to act as well as the bonds formed between students who know each other and their roles equally is heartfelt and honest in a way that most authors find difficult to convey.

Knowing that the author was an actor first also account for much of the novel’s visual emphasis, which is striking in its detail. For each of the Shakespearean productions that occur in the novel, usually just a few scenes at a time, Rio has mostly successfully combined the roles of novelist, director, set designer, and dramaturg, if the presentation is at times a bit overwhelming to the senses. As a result, theatre porn for the theatre kids with a healthy dose of murder-mystery, If We Were Villains is a fun romp through the backstage drama of Shakespearean thespians, but it will undoubtedly fret its hour upon the stage for those readers not obsessed with Shakespeare or the theatrical world.

In fact, it is in the realm of Shakespeare, perhaps the novel’s greatest obsessions, that Rio will press upon the patience and interest of an audience that is not formally trained in Shakespearean study. Her characters rarely utter an entire line of dialogue without inserting some Bardic quip or quotation, which quickly transitions from charming, to annoying, to exasperating as the story continues. While the author does account for this problem in the novel’s climax by indicating her awareness that such behavior is a shield against the world rather than a transparent way of engaging with it, the overall impact of this choice in dialogue is technically impressive but exhausting in execution.

The biggest drawback of this novel, however, is that while Rio shines when she represents the life of a theatre student, the overall work is perhaps a bit too saturated with that world. Every instance, every emotion, every thought these characters have is felt so deeply that one wonders how relatable the characters truly are. Oliver in particular, but other characters as well, border on the unreal and unrelatable as they react to seemingly mundane events in highly agitated or overly-emotional ways, which often left me wondering if the novel’s most dramatic twists and turns were manufactured rather than organic.

This weakness in characterization is also reflected in a number of plot holes later in the text, all of which I can’t get into here without spoiling the story itself. What I will say is that when the big reveal occurs concerning who the murderer is and how the deed was done, I was left with more questions than answers, and the overall denouement was less than satisfying as a result.

Despite these flaws, If We Were Villains is a fun read, perfect for those who have ever been on or near a Shakespearean production and sensed the magic that exists both in the writing and between the actors. If, however, you are not among such enlightened (or otherwise) company, you may want to hold off on this book, for worship of the Bard is not to be undertaken lightly, and those who have not stepped upon such hallowed ground may find the experience…trying.

The Clerk


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