Great Exploitations

at ImprovOlympic Theater

Is Shakespeare funny? Parodies of his work can certainly be funny: as the greatest playwright in the English language (with the possible exception of Steve Martin), he has the distinction of being the most parodied playwright of all time, yielding fabulously witty comedy routines by the likes of Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python as well as less memorable efforts by the Congress of Wonders, Mad magazine, and the Dick Van Dyke Show.

And certainly his tragedies can be unintentionally hilarious. Witness Mel Gibson as Hamlet humping a zombified Glenn Close, or that wretched Midsummer Night’s Dream sequence in Dead Poets Society, or Glenda Jackson as Lady Macbeth around five years ago, acting uncommonly like Mrs. Garrett on Diff’rent Strokes.

But these days productions of his comedies most always seem dreadfully labored and outdated. Jokes make so little sense that actors guffaw at intolerable levels after uttering them, attempting to suck the audience into thinking the jokes are funny. And to a modern, jaded audience, some of the physical humor can seem sub-Benny Hill. (Anyone else see that Midsummer Night’s Dream where Pyramus and Thisbe speak through the wall’s anus?) With very few actors or directors able to mine the humor of Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh is one of the best at it), but many a wise guy able to make fun of him, it’s no wonder that a goofy piece of musical fluff like Great Exploitations’ Hamlet! can get a hundred times more sincere laughs than Shakespeare’s Herd’s dull take on The Comedy of Errors. Clearly, making fun of Shakespeare is easier than making Shakespeare funny.

Michael Thomas and Jeff Richmond’s musical comedy Hamlet! is one of the most unabashedly dopey works I’ve seen in quite some time. Its humor has a lot more in common with the Naked Gun films than with anything the bard ever penned, but it is also fast-paced, witty, and so gleefully performed that it becomes irresistible.

The musical takes us on a Reader’s Digest gallop through Shakespeare’s tragedy about the Great Dane who couldn’t make up his mind, hitting all the usual targets. Hamlet’s oedipal relationship is played to the hilt, with drag queen Alexandra Billings as Gertrude vamping around the stage singing “Mama Is a Boy’s Best Friend.” The splendid Tina Gluschenko (when’s she leaving Chicago for the inevitable Saturday Night Live contract?) demonstrates the madness of Ophelia by clucking like a chicken and singing the old vaudeville joke that she’d seek medical help, but her family needs the eggs. She also gets to serenade Hamlet with a ditty about her nymphomania and passion for S and M.

Richmond and Thomas have ripped off bits from everywhere. There’s a really silly one in which Hamlet is continually interrupted during his “To be or not to be” speech by people dressed as Ophelia that has all the marks of a Marx Brothers skit. There are anachronistic pop-culture references–to show tunes, to Our Town, even to West Side Story. The songs Richmond and Thomas have written are the perfect mixture of clever and stupid; though reminiscent of tons of show tunes, they’re still catchy. And the cast seems to be having such a fantastic time that you tend to forgive a lot of things: Stuart Harris’s supposedly Jewish accent for Polonius sounds a lot more like Pepe Le Pew, and Rich Talarico, who plays Laertes, still hasn’t found a role in which he can keep a straight face for the duration of a play.

A word of warning: if you don’t see any humor in Polonius and Claudius dressing up as giant sunflowers to spy on Hamlet, you’re going to be in for a long night.


Shakespeare’s Herd

at Greenview Arts Center

Someday someone out there might do a funny production of The Comedy of Errors. But after sitting through the BBC production with Roger Daltrey (blech) and the first act of that Goodman Theatre production featuring the Flying Karamazov Brothers (very bad date), I started to wonder. And after Shakespeare’s Herd’s production of this separated-at-birth-reunited-at-long-last-everybody-happy-ever-after play, I’m still wondering.

Shakespeare’s Herd employs an increasingly popular and dramatically dubious technique called “Free Shakespeare.” The idea is to eliminate the traditional stiffness and rote nature of Shakespeare productions by rehearsing and performing without a director only a few times before throwing everyone onstage in front of an audience. A prompter is always present to help out performers who freeze giving those difficult speeches. The goal of this, and it’s a good one, is to make the actors discover Shakespeare while performing his work, to arrive at magical moments serendipitously. The result, however, is often a mess.

I’ll submit that Free Arthur Miller or Free Tennessee Williams would be more logical than Free Shakespeare as a technique. With Miller or Williams it might increase the sense of naturalism. But with Shakespeare each actor, especially in an unseasoned cast, is likely to have a completely different impression of the reality onstage. There are about 17 different actors in Shakespeare’s Herd’s production, and there are about 17 different plays going on. The costumes clash, suggesting widely divergent periods and styles, and the acting techniques don’t always match up. Why in the world is Angelo, the goldsmith, portrayed as some stock Italian street hood? And why does the Courtesan, whose lines are well read by Elizabeth Douglas, look like a madame in an old west saloon?

There are some decent performances here. Thom Van Ermen, portraying the Duke of Ephesus as a sort of circus ringmaster, delivers his lines with aplomb. And Jenniffer Weigel–playing Lucianna, who becomes embroiled in the usual intrigues of mistaken identity and sexual tension–gives one of the most straight-ahead, intelligent readings in the production.

Most of the rest of the cast, however, could really use a director. Free Shakespeare? Shackle the Herd. Now!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Dann.