A Comedic Crash Course in Shakespeare

by Betsy Labiner

I should probably begin with something of a disclaimer: I’m a massive William Shakespeare fan. Check my credentials: I’ve made multiple pilgrimages to both Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe Theatre. I own five different copies of Shakespeare’s complete works (not to mention individual versions of almost all the plays), a number of film adaptations, manga versions, a map of the locations of the plays, and a small golden bust of the man himself. I’m writing my dissertation on Shakespeare and the theatre of his time. My love affair with Shakespeare has been burning strong for over two decades now (my nerdiness manifested at a young age), and shows no signs of ever dimming. 

As you can imagine, when I heard that Arizona Rose Theatre was staging The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged, by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, I had feelings. Mostly positive feelings, but still – I was both excited and trepidatious, worried about whether my love of Shakespeare was going to color my reaction to this take on his oeuvre. Attempting to even mention all his plays in roughly an hour and a half is a tall order, so I couldn’t imagine what Complete Works was going to look like or how it would manage the task that the play itself calls “a feat that we believe to be unprecedented in the history of civilization. That is, to capture, in a single theatrical experience, the magic, the genius, the towering grandeur of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.”

complete works

The complete cast of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

They do more than manage it. Under the direction of Mark Klugheit, actors Steve McKee, Stephanie Howell, and Daniel Hagberg attack the challenge with gusto, jumping from role to role with alacrity. The presentation of the abridged complete works operates within a frame narrative in which the actors set out to introduce an allegedly “intellectually flaccid” audience to Shakespeare. There is no such thing as the fourth wall or suspension of disbelief in this production; the actors address each other out of character, speak directly to the audience, and even solicit audience participation. It’s a lot of fun, and – if I may be my graduate student self for a moment – actually a wonderful encapsulation of the theatrical experience of Shakespeare’s own time. Shakespeare is held up today as a paragon of artistic intelligence and sophistication, and while his work certainly is those things, it is also unrepentantly crass, bawdy, violent, pun-filled, and subversive. His gorgeous verse tricks people into thinking he couldn’t possibly make a “your mom” joke, but he does (see act IV, scene II of Titus Andronicus). This is all to say that Complete Works is rowdy, salacious, and absolutely in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare. 

The play begins and ends with two of Shakespeare’s most famous works – Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, respectively – and crams the other 35 plays, plus a nod to the sonnets, in between. If there was any element that disappointed me, it was simply that we didn’t get more. Some of the plays are essentially just name-dropped before we skip on to the next joke. The brevity is the point, of course, but I would have been happy to stretch the irreverent fun for as long as possible. One of my favorite moments was the play’s take on Titus Andronicus, which was presented in the form of a hilariously off-kilter cooking show. It was unapologetically dark humor, and I loved it. 

The actors don’t indulge in overacting so much as revel in it, leaning on it for comedic effect in moments that might otherwise derail the lightheartedness of the play. The over-the-top death scenes and self-aware soliloquizing are all part of the fun. All three actors deserve praise for their ability to slip in and out of Shakespearean verse, weaving the frame narrative as well as modern pop culture references into the various Sparknotes-esque scenes. They also did a great job responding to and working with the audience, even in clearly unscripted moments in which feisty audience members seized the opportunity to ham it up. I applaud the comedic use of lighting and music, particularly a scene in which McKee is forced to literally chase the spotlight. Hat tip to Ruben Rosthenhausler, Paul Mayfield, and Brandon Howell on those elements! 

I also want to praise the casting. Complete Works is typically performed by three men, but as demonstrated by this production, there’s absolutely no reason that need be the case. Gender-blind casting affects neither the humor nor the story, and simply opens up new possibilities in interpretation. 

Whether you’re a Shakespeare afficionado or a more casual consumer of his work, this play is for you. It’s a blast through and through, as long as you’re willing to not take yourself, or Shakespeare, too seriously. The play contains adult humor and profanity, so this probably isn’t something you should attend with young children. 

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged is playing at The Arizona Rose Theatre through March 15. The only bad news? Much of the run is already sold out! They’ve added one additional performance already, but tickets are going quickly. You can check availability online at http://www.arizonarosetheatre.com/, or call (520) 888-0509. And as McKee says, “May the Bard be with you.”

My Kingdom for Cohesive Direction!

by Gabriella De Brequet

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays written about the insidious king and his corrupt quest for blood, power, and the throne of England. It’s truly horrifying how relevant Richard III is for today’s audience considering our current political climate. However, the direction by Brent Gibbs, in this Arizona Repertory Theatre production, left me unsatisfied and confused.

‘The blocking of this production was awkward and unmotivated. The performers seemed to be crossing from once side of the stage to the other with no greater reason other than the fact that they were told to.  This was especially the case in large crowd scenes.

Richard III is a play heavy with death. But this production seemed to have little to no stakes from characters who were being sent to their executions. There was no sense of danger associated with many of the character’s deaths, and ultimately it didn’t support the content of the play. The world just wasn’t believable and this made the two-hour production difficult to sit through, even for a Shakespeare-lover such as myself. To top it off, director Gibbs chose to create an out of left-field alternate horror movie ending which completely strays from the original text. This left me wondering, will there be a sequel? If so, count me out.

Through all of the awkward staging, lack of relationships, and bold directorial choices there were some notable performances. Liam Thibeault’s Duke of Buckingham was witty and sharp, Kelly Hajek’s Queen Elizabeth was strong and striking, Jenna Meadow’s as the Murder was hilarious, Marina DeVaux and Sophia Goodin as Edward and Duke of York were unified and clear. Overall I felt that the female ensemble members carried the show. They were dynamic and interesting to watch on stage. As for Connor Mckinley Griffin’s portrayal of the title character, I felt that his lack of charm presented the character as one dimensional. Griffin delivered plenty of horrifying menace, but I wish that his Richard had a little more depth in his villainy.

In spite of all the production’s directional bumps, visually this play was stunning with a multi-leveled set by Jason Jamerson adorned with spikes, skeletons, and abstract metal work. The lighting by Tori Mays was striking and helped set the scene. The costumes by Elizabeth Eaton were gorgeously grungy. This production was a technically and visually jaw dropping, and the production is worth witnessing for the design elements alone. However, the production design team could not save the show from its misguided direction.

Richard III is playing at the Marroney Theater through Sunday, March 31st. Tickets can be purchased via the Arizona Repertory Theatre website: theatre.arizona.edu or by calling the box office at 520-621-1162.

Bro-Code, Me Too, and Much Ado

by Chloe Loos

A classic comedy about mistaken identity and courtly courtship, Much Ado About Nothing at the Rogue Theatre delivers exactly what Tucson has come to expect from its ensemble of well-seasoned actors: clear language and beautiful acting.  

Ryan Parker Knox as Benedick and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Ryan Parker Knox as Benedick and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

The opening was clever, featuring Beatrice (Holly Griffith) and her spitfire delivery of some grade-A Elizabethan insults to her Benedick (Ryan Parker Knox), who serves them right back. The exchange really shows the audience why the duo tends to take center stage despite the main plot turning on the budding love between gentle Hero, played by a darling Bryn Booth, and Claudio, played by a striking Hunter Hnat. I was blown away by the attention given to each minute detail in the facial expressions and slight movements by each member of the cast, from Hero’s waiting ladies (Claire de la Vergne, Sarah Shannon) to the rest of the men who populate Messina. There was also an enjoyable abundance of strong physical comedy from Dogberry, played by the comical Matt Walley, and the Watch (Cole Potwardowski, Sarah Shannon, and Chris Pankratz).

While I enjoyed myself throughout most of the piece, parts of the villainous subplot surrounding Don John (Christopher Johnson), Borachio (Steve McKee), and Conrade (Dave Hentz) fell a little flat due to the liveliness of the main action. While Don John is a brooding character, the implicit pacing in these portions tended to lull me out of the rapid-fire dialogue that flowed around the home of Leonato (Harold Dixon).

I also want to give kudos to the minimal set designed by Joseph McGrath and executed by scenic artist Amy Novelli. The set perfectly echoed a classic Shakespeare piece and was unobtrusively modified throughout scene changes. The costumes were as beautiful as expected and added characterization via details such as color palette and fabric material that built the world of the play. A final element that really tied the piece together was the beautiful use of music provided by Russell Ronnebaum on piano, Samantha Bounkeua on violin, and John Keeney (as Balthasar) on guitar. Although I do feel that the idea of underscoring dramatic action could have been utilized a little more, the sounds that drifted to my ears from the balcony really got me into the mood of the piece before and during the performance.

Now, to review a Shakespeare play is an intimidating task as one needs to consider both the historic meaning of the text and explore why we are still doing his work 500+ years after the fact. Shakespeare is often done due to his “universal” themes, but I believe that there are so many specific place and time-bound constraints of understanding that we really need to examine the specific context in which current versions of his work are being done.

The central conflict of the play revolves around the question of Hero’s worthiness (read: virginity). She is set up to appear a harlot by Don John’s machinations (which, as a bastard, is an extension of his own shame and misogyny), and the play leads us to a point where she is publicly shamed – and forcefully pushed away – by Claudio. Leonato laments that he would rather see her dead than unvirtuous. We can, of course, write this off as a relic of the time, but I think it is important we witness the lines of belief and trust that come through the play, especially in today’s “Me Too” milieu. The play continues and everything ends up just peachy (as this is still a comedy) but there are no repercussions for the horrible actions of the “good guys”. Hero’s silence is also something to be aware of as in this piece she does not speak for 35 minutes (when her identity has shifted into being engaged) and does not speak more than a verse until 55 minutes into the play. The text itself seems to recognize this, however, as we see how the close friendship among men (a “bro-code”) leads to the blameless Hero’s death.

Harold Dixon as Leonato, Bryn Booth as Hero, and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Harold Dixon as Leonato, Bryn Booth as Hero, and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

More overt and surprisingly progressive attitudes towards gender include Beatrice’s commanding actions and fierce thoughts (her “O, that I were a man” speech was incredible) and Benedick’s transformation into a love-struck puppy upon finding out that she could love him, for instance. The first scene between two named men – Benedick and Claudio – showcases a reverse on the Bechdel test in which the two discuss the ladies of the house.

Finally, I do want to notate that there was only one person of color in the show and, in my showing, less than five people of color in the audience which denotes to me that Shakespeare is still affiliated with white audiences. I recognize that the Rogue has built its relationships with actors through the ensemble, but I wonder if the lack of people of color in the ensemble is indicative of a larger problem within the theatre community.

There is still a place for Shakespeare in modern times, and sometimes it can be surprising what these texts of yesterday can tell us today. So, without much ado, get thee to the Rogue! Tickets can be purchased online at theroguetheatre.org or by calling 520-551-2053. Showtimes are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm until January 27th.