Sunday, March 20, 2011

Great Lakes Theater Festival: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abriged)

Presented by Great Lakes Theater Festival; directed by Charles Fee, at the Hanna Theater, PlayhouseSquare

It's funny -- like Opera, the entire category of "Shakespeare" doesn't rank terribly high on my list of performing arts loves; I think it's a combination of of hearing "Romeo, romeo..." read in a stilted adolescent monotone a few too many times in middle and high school English classes, and some bad, edging on truly terrible*, interpretations of The Bard's works at the Old Globe in San Diego's Balboa Park, dragged at at a younger age by my good intentioned (and Shakespeare-loving) mother. I still don't get the iambic pentameter, but generally I've been (more) pleased by GLTF's takes on his works.

This is also not my first time with The Complete Works; though. I was going to
say I've seen it once before (with my dad) -- but during a phone call with the afore-mentioned good-intentioned mother, she "reminded" me that we had also seen it before. In all honesty, I don't remember that one. I remember the version I saw with my dad as being more of a reading than a play in an cramped, hot, unadorned black-box store-front theater. I remember it as being somewhere in the neighborhood of "mildly amusing".

That long exposition out of the way you may wonder why I wound up on East 14th Street this afternoon. The short answer is I'm really not sure why.

Reasons or antireasons aside, the hour and 15 minutes preceding intermission was a riotous romp covering 35 plays in an engaging and laugh out loud** funny. Though I spent a fair amount of time doubled over, the sight gags were plentiful and the wordplay was delightful.

Like I mentioned, I don't remember one of the two productions and all, and the other was a setless black box (with three guys in black T-shirts), so I wasn't expecting much from this production. Before the curtain went up, I was half wondering if the curtain would go up, or if all of the action was to be set on the forestage.

After an unintroduced curtain speech (ahem, who are you?) the play begins on amusing note after amusing note -- and that's before we even get to Romeo and Juliet. The curtain does rise and we have a miniature Old Globe-looking structure emblazoned with larger than life headshots of the bard serving kind of like the castle in a fish tank for actors to swim in front of, through, and behind. The lighting is clever without being obnoxious, and the sound is appropriate.

I think I got about 80% of the in-jokes, sight gags, and pop culture references, there were still more that others in the audience picked up on and flew over my head.

The pop culture references, by the way, are very current, not "what would have been pop culture when I saw this for the first (second) time 10 years ago" or "what would have been pop culture when the playwrights were writing 20 years ago" but include Facebook, President Obama, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga]. Was Bieber even alive the first time I saw this? Suddenly I'm feeling very old. See also the "wardrobe malfunction" early in the first act with pictures of the scandal on Facebook. If you're up on Broadway news, pay attention to the Spiderman look-alike who comes crashing from the fly gallery when The Scottish Play's true name is uttered.

Cleveland references and in-jokes are also plentiful, but delivered with such ease and inconspicuously (I may have just made that word up) by the actors that you might miss them if you're too busy, I don't know, hunched over laughing at the last joke.

I don't remember there being an intermission in the version I had seen previously -- I was thinking one act, so it caught me as a bit of a surprise that intermission was called with 35 down and only Hamlet to go.

Honestly, that was the one part of the show that seemed to drag -- and trying to 30 minutes with gags, jokes, and commentary on one play (including audience participation and several takes on the ending) is hard not to drag. If, like me, you aren't a Shakespeare fanatic, a visit to the Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson bar during intermission may be worthwhile.

*- At least for my teenaged self, however my mother has admitted that they were far from the best she had seen. Odd side note, near my grandparent's place, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Ashland, Oregon's "New Stage" is serving as the inspiration for one of Cleveland Play House's new theaters in the PlayhouseSquare complex.
** - Rare for me. Kind of like screaming on roller coasters; I really enjoy riding them but I rarely open my mouth. This apparently goes back to my early days when, surviving my first roller coaster ride without a peep my dad though he had forever traumatized me. Until I asked "Can we do that again?"

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