Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
First, necessarily, comments on the controversy: Theater is a living, breathing art form. It has always reflected and reacted to its time. Currently, LGBT and apocalyptic themes are joined by a proliferation of stories with immigrant, and Middle East discourse/illumination. Religious freedom, women’s rights and segregation have ruled the stage in waves.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard, in this, the Public Theater’s current iteration of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the central character is meant to physically resemble Donald Trump and his wife to sound like Melania. Why not?! The classic drama has been produced with Caesar portrayed as Mussolini in Orson Welles’ anti-fascist version, an unnamed African dictator for that of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and, in 2012, President Obama at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. None of these interpretations provoked protests. That original text resonates in each rendition is sufficient reason to restage the piece.
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere, Elizabeth Marvel
Oscar Eustis, Artistic Director of The Public Theater, chose Caesar for relevance and, in his own words, as “a warning parable.” This examination of how far a people may go to protect democracy from a charismatic demagogue clearly shows radical consequences of anarchistic violence rather than advocating it. A staff driven by greed and personal advancement (sound familiar?) gets just desserts. Brutus is the only patriotic, if misguided conspirator, a fact acknowledged but not celebrated. Fatalism sweeps the stage like sirocco. Chaos ensues.
The play itself is problematic. While much proves as lively as it is timeless – “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” is from bona fied text (the audience laughs), a long, dense scene in which Brutus and Cassius disagree on plans could put anyone to sleep. Attention dips for a time after Marc Antony’s spectacular death bed (here, a gurney) oration.
Corey Stoll and John Douglas Thompson; Nikki M. James and Corey Stoll
Julius Caesar (Gregg Henry, with inadequate bombastic presence) greets adoring Rome with wife Calpurnia (Tina Benko, palpably seductive; great Slavic accent) preening by his side. At one point, he bats her away, a gesture that could easily have been played in reverse had the director wanted to be more partisan. Though he refuses a crown, it’s obvious Caesar’s fingers itch.
Fearing the loss of democracy, members of The Senate plot assassination at the instigation of Brutus (Corey Stoll, who underplays so much, it feels like we’re watching a disgruntled bureaucrat, not a soldier or statesman.) “He scorns the base degrees by which he did ascend,” Brutus declares of Caesar. (Currently applicable?)
Of this bunch, Teagle F. Bougere’s Casca is solidly credible and John Douglas Thompson (Cassius) provides one of two masterful characterizations every time he’s onstage. Thompson is vital, impassioned; his voice deep and invested, phrasing accessible yet poetic, presence shimmers with power. A soldier to his toes.
Corey Stoll and The Company
Conspirators come and go at Brutus’s home prompting questioning concern by his wife Portia (an excellent Nikki M. James) who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her husband into telling her what’s going on. Calpurnia almost has better luck when, fearing the portent of a dream, she attempts to get Caesar to blow off the Senate in favor of cavorting with her, initially in a gold bathtub (inspired). With convincing reinterpretation Decius (Eisa Davis) changes his mind back, however. It’s here we first meet Marc Antony (Elizabeth Marvel), seemingly drunk and wearing shades (go figure), arrive to accompany her leader to the gathering.
You know the rest. Caesar is stabbed multiple times – here, first in the back, then physically pulled over the top of a podium to the floor and pierced by all. Brutus is the last and apparently most reticent, appearing directly after, glazed as a deer in headlights. A couple of actors have difficulty getting daggers out of pockets. One participant photographs the body on a Smart Phone.
Antony is devastated. “She” secures permission to address the public after Brutus’s brief announcement of Caesar’s death. (Pronouns change when applicable.) Marvel, a second terrific performance, looks and sounds like Sissy Spacek replete with Texas accent. The actress roils then erupts. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” One of Shakespeare’s great Machiavellian speeches, it sounds as if in support of Brutus & Co while denouncing them with honeyed words, inciting the crowd. Nuanced writing moves seamlessly from defeat to empowerment to challenge. Marvel wonderfully emotes from her gut.
Elizabeth Marvel and The Company
The rest is demonstrations, Civil War, firing squads, and suicides. Battles are well staged. With civilians calling out, then running on stage from all over the audience, energy high and movement constant, violent pandemonium is evoked despite lack of much choreographed fighting. (NYC sirens often add.) Political and psychological parallels are many. Alas, the show’s incredibly short run doesn’t allow more of you to find them for yourselves.
Director Oscar Eustis moves his large cast with strategic skill immersing the audience, manipulating tension, creating sweep. Two-handers create palpable intimacy. Brutus and his boy Lucilius (Tyler La Marr) are as profoundly personal as he and Cassius or he and Portia. When laughter rises from the bleachers out of recognition, it fades to allow the production to continue.
David Rockwell’s Set looks as if it was designed by committee members each of whom stuck to his own vision, which, judging by his organization’s current ubiquity, may be the case. Too many styles deny the play gravitas as well as cohesion. Additionally, while a poster-plastered, graffiti-filled wall supporting a large number of floral tributes is timely and the Senate chamber looks splendid, inside Brutus’ tent resembles a lady’s sewing room and various Photoshopped panels evoke high school productions. Oh, and there’s the giant eye, a representation of Big Brother?
Most of Paul Tazewell’s contemporary, non-distracting Costume Design works well, though street cops without weapons or communication equipment become lite police. (His Tactical Squad is frighteningly well outfitted.)
Jessica Paz deserves double call out for Sound Design. Not only does she conjure vociferous mobs and not so distant violence, but every player speaking from the audience (and there are many) is distinctly heard. Original Music and Soundscapes by Bray Poor are cinematic.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Greg Henry and The Company
Free Shakespeare in the Park/ The Public Theater presents Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare Directed by Oscar Eustis The Public Theater In the park: A Midsummer Night’s Dream – July 11-August 13, 2017
Spider, spiky, thistle, spoon, quill, anemone, pom—are these random words referring to things such as hair style, writing utensils, cheerleaders, and kitchen ware? They could be, but in this case they are descriptions of various forms of chrysanthemums (mums). Mums are beautiful ornamental flowers that often peak in the fall.
According to Wikipedia, the name is derived from Ancient Greek and means gold flower. Mums were first cultivated in China 3,500 years ago. They were introduced to Japan in the 8th century CE, and adopted by the Emperor as his official seal. My good friend Jan Gordon, owner of East Meets West Flowers in Pleasantville, New York, informed me that the Emperor was drawn to the flower because of its various attributes, such as strength wisdom, honesty, purity, and nobility. Mums finally arrived on American shores in 1798 from England.
Since then, horticulturalists have cross-bred many varieties. There are hundreds now in different shapes and colors. But mums are not just decorative and ornamental. The Chinese use them to make tea. Some European cultures view them as symbolic of death and use them at funerals.
In the U.S., the mum is the official flower of Chicago and Salinas, California. They have also been adopted by various fraternities and sororities. And while it was fun to use mums in the title of this piece, “Mum’s the Word” has nothing to do with the flower—it means “silent” and was made famous by William Shakespeare in Henry VI.
I was privileged recently to meet a retired gentleman who for decades has been an expert mum hobbyist. He often enters his mums into various competitions, and is frequently asked to judge others across the country.
In one such competition this year, 10 of his mums were among the top 25 awardees. While getting to know each other, I simultaneously photographed most of his flowers. To see more of these magnificent specimens, click on this link to admire them on my website.
This unlikely musical commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the legendary actor Edwin Booth’s return to the stage (New York’s Wintergarden Theater) and the 400th Anniversary of William Shakespeare on whose work the performer and his family founded their reputations.
The British/American Booths consisted of father, Junius Brutus Booth who abandoned his wife in England and came to America with Mary Ann Holmes, fathering three bastard sons: Junius Brutus Booth Jr. (of lesser reputation), John Wilkes Booth who had a fairly successful career before assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, and Edwin Booth, the foremost American Shakespearean actor of his day and founder New York’s Player’s Club. Like the Barrymores, the Booths were a prominent theatrical family with serious alcohol problems.
Dana Watkins and Paul DeBoy
After an opening song reminiscent of Sweeney Todd we meet Edwin Booth (Dana Watkins) on the night he returns to the stage (in Hamlet) after the assassination of President Lincoln by his brother John. “Is that why you chose Hamlet, because our country lost a father?” asks his earnest, young bodyguard Rob (Ben Mayne). Were it not for needing to support his mother (Deanne Lorette) and daughter, the actor would not be risking his life. A surging crowd outside might easily contain someone vengeful.
Dana Watkins and Patricia Noonan
Edwin is sober for the first time in years. He’s lived through the demise of his alcoholic father Junius (Paul DeBoy) and tender wife Mollie (Patricia Noonan), both of whose untimely deaths have been blamed on his neglect, implied guilt about exploiting sibling Junius Jr. (Adam Bashian), and the infamy of being related to a murderer. Having finally stopped drinking , he fearfully hopes against hope for a kind of redemption in tonight’s performance. Assuming he survives it.
The protagonist floats fairly smoothly from present to past, from narrative to (a few too many) bits of Shakespeare plays, surrounded by ghosts of his relatives. We observe fraught family relationships and professional history. John, the most volatile brother, is portrayed as his father’s favorite. When Edwin takes his turn accompanying Junius on tour (to regulate drunken behavior as best as possible), his father keeps calling him Johnny. Crucial connection is nonetheless established. One might conjecture Edwin’s drinking started with the death of his role model.
Todd Lawson and Dana Watkins
The choice not to make John Wilkes Booth the nucleus of the piece is inspired. Illuminating and entertaining, Edwin delivers a real feeling for life tethered to the theater as well as a family portrait. (One assumes certain implied relationships are conjecture.) It also has a whizz-bang ending. But, beginning with its length, there are issues.
Second, and easy to correct, there’s currently no information in the program about each character. My companions and I were all lost as one after another person came onto the scene. Was “Johnny” John Wilkes Booth or another actor In Hamlet? Which player was the third brother? Who was Mollie? Were Mary and Junius not married? Who was dead? Though all this becomes clear, it’s confusing at first. An audience shouldn’t have to work so hard. (The surprise ending can be hidden.)
Adam Bashian, Dana Watkins, Todd Lawson
Paul DeBoy is an excellent Junius. The actor has style and brio, plays drunk with finesse, confidence and exhaustion with prowess, and listens skillfully. DeBoy moves with the kind of on-and-off stage prideful awareness we imagine Booth pere to possess. His timing is impeccable.
Both Deanne Lorette (Mary Ann-mother) and Patricia Noonan (Edwin’s wife, Mollie) have fine voices with Noonan’s lovely contralto standing out for clarity and enunciation. Both actresses imbue their characters with warmth and naturalness. Noonan also slips in and out of Shakespeare with aptitude and emerges particularly empathetic.
Todd Lawson’s multidimensional characterization credibly depicts John Wilkes Booth as hot tempered, frustrated, and out for glory. The piece implies his pro-Confederate politics had more to do with the latter than with confirmed beliefs. Lawson appealingly flares and moves as if owning the stage.
Ben Mayne and Dana Watkins
As Rob, Ben Mayne manages to bring sincerity to a small part, especially during scenes in Edwin’s dressing room. Adam Bashian does a yeoman like job as Junius Jr.
Dana Watkins is alas, though very attractive, the weak link here. Watkins’s low notes are lost. He mumbles too often, is rather stiff, and never seems, like the other Booths, to commandeer a room. Nor do we believe either romantic love or agony of repentance.
The strongest creative contribution comes from Librettist (and Lyricist) Eric Swanson. There are insightful, character specific conversations about aspects of a life treading the boards, ego, jealousy, intimacy, and motivation. Swanson’s tone is literate, and mercifully lacking in contemporary vernacular. He clearly understands ‘the life.’ Several lyrics, including one about the contents of Junius’s prized make-up case, deftly relate to Shakespearean roles. Songs like “Oh What a Life!” and “Tom Fool” paint vivid theatrical pictures. Ballads are somewhat less distinctive as are derivative opening and closing company numbers. Several songs, though fine unto themselves, unnecessarily repeat information and emotion imparted earlier.
Marianna Rosett’s Music suits the period, evokes mood, and carries each lyric but sometimes lacks individuality. Using what seems to be the same tango for two very different numbers is a questionable decision.
Director Christopher Scott gracefully engineers flow on and off the stage-upon-the-stage, and episodically through past and present. Brief choreography is welcome as is an unexpected sword fight (Fight Director-Ron Piretti). Chad McCarver’s minimal Set is used optimally, in fact, with some elegance. Most Booths command the stage with presence and sweep. (You might have John take his hand out of his pocket during dramatic scenes). Women are immensely sympathetic.
Early on, in the snippet of a scene from Lear, male actors play Lear’s daughters while the women present play men. One assumes this is because there are only two women. Nonetheless, it’s disconcerting.
David Zyla’s Costume Design is artful and appropriate. Variation in men’s attire is particularly adroit.
Sound Design is unfortunately an issue here. There are no mikes and only some of these thespians consistently project. Sections of dialogue and song are periodically lost.
By Unknown – The Life and Times of Joseph Haworth – The Booth brothers
A production of Julius Caesar mounted before the tragedy, starring all three of the Booth brothers, funded the statue of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park just south of the Promenade.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel Opening: Paul DeBoy, Patricia Noonan, Adam Bashian, Ben Mayne, Deanne Lorette, Todd Lawson
Great Circle Productions presents Edwin-The Story of Edwin Booth Music-Marianna Rosett Book & Lyrics- Eric Swanson Directed by Christopher Scott Piano/Conductor- Evan Alparone Bass-Dara Bloom; Violin/Violas- Ljova Zhurbin Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street Through September 18, 2016
What with Hilary Clinton hopefully on her way to The White House and a resurgence of women’s groups focused on everything from reproductive rights to career opportunities, The Public Theater apparently thinks mounting an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew is timely quid pro quo. (All productions in Shakespeare’s time were acted exclusively by men.) Even the show’s director, Phyllida Lloyd, hails from the distaff side.
Lloyd, alas, is the biggest part of the problem here. Seemingly in an effort to emulate Alex Timber’s immensely more successful free-for-all musical take on Love’s Labour’s Lost, we have a concept gone off the rails with no cohesive point of view. Irreverence can be fun, but this…!?
Donna Lynn Champlin, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Crush Jumbo
In brief, Petruchio (Janet McTeer) arrives from Verona “to wive it wealthily in Padua.” When told the likeliest candidate is a shrew named Katherina/Kate (Cush Jumbo), he resolves to acquire the lady by denying her faults. Kate’s younger sister Bianca (Gayle Rankin) has a slew of suitors. Predominant among these are locals Gemio (Judy Gold) and Hortensio (Stacey Sargeant), and the newly arrived Lucentio (Rosa Gilmore).
The girls’ father, Baptista (Latanya Richardson Jackson), will not allow Bianca’s marriage before Kate is suitably paired off. He will, however, permit tutors access to his daughters. Lucentio switches places with his servant Tranio (Adrienne C. Moore) and is presented to papa as a teacher of literature. In a really funny scene, he declares his identity and love between passages of Gone With the Wind. Bianca responds “I know you not. I trust you not. (reading) I’ll never be hungry again!” She’s conveniently if irrationally dressed like Scarlett O’Hara.
Not to be outdone, Hortensio masquerades as a music instructor. Lucentio wins. Tranio secures her hand for his master (still disguised as him) by promising a large dowry. After a mix-up involving Lucentio’s faux and actual father, servant and master switch back.
Janet McTeer and Crush Jumbo
Drunk (there’s a bottle in his paper bag) and under dressed in this version, Petruchio weds Kate and drags her off in his hysterical, full sized RV, painted with pin-ups. (Kudos to Mark Thompson.) He deprives his bride of food and sleep at a trailer camp – killing her with ersatz kindness – until starving and exhausted, she gives in to his every whim. Upon returning home for Bianca’s wedding, he bets on and proves the shrew’s change. Kate’s iconic speech about wifely duties/subservience is a surprise to everyone.
A pithy role long relished by formidable actresses, Kate must be an equal to Petruchio for the play to work. She must match him in quickness of wit, intelligence, and stubborn pride – in other words, a prize. The best performances show slow recognition that this strong, attractive man is, in fact, worth having; that it’s her decision to submit, that rather than diminish Kate, it will eventually give her leverage. Petruchio meanwhile grows to admire what he now ostensibly owns and will, it’s implied, relinquish his outrageous test demands. The “doormat” speech is delivered with an arched eyebrow by a woman who has found her water level .
Crush Jumbo, Janet McTeer
Beginning and ending with a beauty pageant, the British Lloyd acknowledges that women were judged by beauty and financial gain. That she paints both female protagonists as unworthy of further examination is as anti-feminist as it gets.
In this production, the heroine is a tantrum-throwing, childish brat (andnot believable as that, either). As conceived one presumes by Lloyd and played by an ill-suited Cush Jumbo, her only merit is a dowry. The relationship is meaningless. Kate is a Stepford Wife. Lest we leave with that impression, she has an aria da capo fit of screaming rebellion at the end and is dispensed in a manner that makes no sense. What ?!
Bianca’s air-headed, blonde beauty queen persona is embodied rather well by Gayle Rankin with comedic flair, despite directed shouting. It would work better had she a significant Kate to play her opposite.
Latanya Richardson Jackson, Janet McTeer
Also good are Stacey Sargeant as Hortensio (replete with accordion and some well finessed timing) and Adrienne C. Moore as a genial Tranio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Baptista lacks paternal and class authority.
A call-out should be made to Judy Gold (Gremio) who rescued a stall due to the malfunctioning RV, with ad-libbed comedy, some of which was lighthearted vaudeville, some of which was unnecessarily vulgar.
The best reason to sit through this mishmash is far and away Janet McTeer (Petruchio). This mercurial actress, soon to appear on Broadway in Les Liasons Dangereuses, imbues her swaggering, masculine role with so much visual testosterone, reality feels suspended. She moves, gestures, smokes, drinks and deeply laughs as would the cocky rogue. Petruchio manhandles Kate with confident sovereignty and no regard for the weakness of her sex. Commands are spit, aftermath watchful. McTeer, calculates, manipulates, revels, and gloats in perfect tenor. A masterful turn.
Rose Gilmore, Gayle Rankin
Mark Thompson’s evocative tent and wagon Set seems irrelevant to a piece with not a moment of circus parody or performance. His 1950’s Costumes fair better with the help of Leah J. Loukas’s unflattering (the style then) Hair and Wig Design. The production also, however, utilizes western gear, sometimes adding cowboy hats to suits from another geography. Petruchio resembles a Texas Hell’s Angel. Kate looks like a character from Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park). Nor are the rich dressed any differently than their servants. At least give us that disparity within a chosen genre.
Live music between scenes consists of abrasive, electronic, bass sound with a tad of rhythm and next to no melody. (Sam Davis) Excerpted disco tunes and middle-of-the-road pop are often humorously inserted but rarely from the 1950s and never country/western. Disconnect is constant. (A company dance finale -Broadway meets disco – is sheer copycat.)
The company is hit or miss with language that should be crisp and intelligible whatever its proffered context. While I have no problem when two (black) servants speak with ghetto street inflection, general enunciation lacks the precision necessary to make a conversational approach accessible and entertaining. Most of these actresses seem untrained in Shakespeare. The further afield a production is taken, the more important its dialogue.
As always, the outdoor theater itself is a unique experience. Besides helicopters who frustratingly never seem rerouted on performance nights, we’re visited by an enormous raccoon and four perfectly arrayed geese. The weather is glorious.
How to stage Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to make it more palatable for present-day audiences? Start with inspiration from Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar who connected with one of the main themes of being an outsider. Add in songs from musician/composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening). Then line up an all male cast including 30 Rock’s Maulik Pancholy to play the feisty shrew Katherina. The result is a highly enjoyable take on one of the Bard’s most controversial plays.
The fun begins even before entering the theater. Actors in costume are on the sidewalk and in the lobby greeting patrons, posing for photos, and answering questions about the play. (This mingling of the audience and cast continues during the half-hour intermission called an “intermezzo,” with refreshments served on stage, and at the end of the performance.) Piazza D’Amore, an artisan market, has been set up on the first and second floors of the theater, designed to look like the open-air markets of Padua, with handmade fashion goods and food items that might appeal to the contemporary consumer.
Peter Gadiot, center, as Petruchio, with the cast
The stage setting for the play is a glittering multi-level structure bathed in golden lights with colorful eye-catching curtains at the top. (Kudos to Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood and Lighting Designer Seth Reiser.) Ostensibly, this is the palace of the wealthy Padua merchant, Baptista (Bernard White), who has two daughters, Katherina (Pancholy), and Bianca (Oliver Thornton). Bianca, the more beautiful and feminine of the two, has numerous suitors, most notably Lucentio (Telly Leung). Yet Bianca can’t be married off until her older sister, the obstreperous Kate, lands a husband. So when the rogue, Petruchio (Peter Gadiot), appears, drawn in less by Kate than by the value of her dowry, the die is cast.
Maulik Pancholy as Katherina and Peter Gadiot as Petruchio
Baptista, who cares little for Kate’s happiness and safety (no helicopter parenting here), agrees to the match, even when Petruchio humiliates his future wife by showing up late for the ceremony dressed like an animal with antlers. In modern times, Kate would have taken a page from Julia Robert’s The Runaway Bride and fled. But this is the1500s, and Kate submits to the union and is whisked away, not in a luxurious carriage but in a rickety wooden wheelbarrow. It’s a harbinger of what is to follow. Petruchio, intent on “taming” Kate, resorts to sleep deprivation and starvation to break her will.
Peter Gadiot as Petruchio and Maulik Pancholy as Katherina
Even though Iskander has removed from this production some of the harsher language (haggard, for one), there’s no blunting the misogynistic themes throughout the play. George Bernard Shaw once said about The Taming of the Shrew: “No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed.” (Shaw vigorously protected the independence of Pygmalion’s heroine, Eliza, by not having the play end with her marrying Professor Higgins.) Referring to Kate’s final speech of submission, Iskander writes in the production’s program, “It seems monstrous to ask a woman to perform it in today’s world…” Does an all male cast make that speech and other slights within the play less offensive? Perhaps on some level. What does help is placing the play in historical context, understanding the considerable obstacles women once faced.
Oliver Thornton as Bianca and Maulik Pancholy as Katherina
As Baptista’s two daughters, Kate and Bianca are polar opposites, the contrast played up visually by the characters’ wigs and costumes. Thornton’s Bianca sports long blonde tresses and wears pink gowns embellished with feathers and sparkles. Pancholy’s Kate has her dark hair in a blunt cut and wears muted, manish clothing. But it’s the way these two actors carry themselves and express their emotions with hand gestures and body language that conveys how they regard their gender and sexuality. Bianca is flirtatious, enjoying all the attention she receives from her male suitors, while Kate refuses to entertain their presence, often hurling insults. Pancholy’s performance is brilliant because it is so disturbing. It’s disconcerting to watch Kate transform from the strong-willed fighter she once was into a docile woman who helps Petruchio win a bet when she’s the only wife who comes when he calls.
Comic relief is provided by André De Shields as Gremio, an older suitor seeking Bianca’s hand. (Although why he appears as a Cardinal is a mystery.) He dances then suddenly passes away in a death scene that he plays for laughs. (De Shields was also much sought after for photos in the lobby.) As another Bianca suitor, Lucentio (Leung), along with his tutor, Tranio (Matthew Russell), also create lighter moments.
The Taming of the Shrew will always have its detractors. Yet Shakespeare Theatre’s timing in producing the play is perfect. While women continue to push for equality in the workplace, we will see a woman run for the highest office in our country. And the transgender movement is challenging how we think about what separates men and women. It’s hard not to think about those facts while being entertained by this very lively production.
Photos by Scott Schuman
The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare Theatre 610 F Street NW
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in `t.” Hamlet
The world is celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and the Folger Theatre has joined in with a production that would probably have the Bard himself laughing in the aisle. For fans who appreciate all things Shakespeare, the Reduced Shakespeare Company needs no introduction. Those just discovering this troupe are in for a treat. The new production, a premiere of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), continues the group’s humorous and creative way of weaving together Shakespeare’s plots and characters with contemporary references thrown in. The result is a lightning-fast, razor-sharp laugh-fest.
The fun starts immediately as the three sneaker-clad actors – Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, and Austin Tichenor – bound onto the stage, holding aloft the famed lost play, half a foot thick, the pages loosely bound together. We’re told about all the references within this “faux-bio,” – 101 Venetians, The Real Merry Housewives of Windsor, and, of course, CATS. The many references to Disney are certainly funny but also underline how Shakespeare’s influence is a cultural phenomenon. Spencer, who spends time dressed as the Little Mermaid, Ariel, calls Walt Disney “a modern day Shakespeare” and runs down the similarities between Will’s plays and Walt’s films. The Winter’s Tale? Frozen!
This scripted play has the feel of improv, particularly those bits that involve audience members. Two arrive late and incur the players’ rebuke and empathy: “You rue the day you took the Metro.” Since the two offenders left during intermission, we surmise they were plants. But two others – dubbed Dale and Gale – were obviously not, called onto stage during one segment to wave blue fabric to create the sea while the actors shot water pistols into the audience. (If you are not inclined to participate, make sure you’re not in the front row.)
The costumes add to the frivolity, particularly those that have the actors cross-dressing. The changes are made in rapid fashion so that the flow of the play is never affected. Particularly appealing are the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, one a puppet that is manipulated by Tichenor and resembles the witch from Disney’s Snow White.
Part of the fun is seeing characters from different Shakespeare plays interact. We have Puck (Martin) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a grudge match with The Tempest’s Ariel (Spencer); Hamlet up against Lady Macbeth; and Viola (Twelfth Night) alongside Richard III.
My one quibble is that the play runs a tad too long – one hour and 45 minutes with an intermission. Although the actors maintained their energy in the second act, several of the scenes, particularly those with Puck and Ariel, began to seem repetitive. Trimming fifteen minutes and presenting the entire thing in one act would have been a better approach.
Still there were plenty of laughs up to and including the end. And these days, heaven knows, we can all use a good laugh.
Photos by Teresa Wood
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) Folger Theatre 201 East Capitol Street, SE 202-544-7077