Review: SKULLDUGGERY: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet, a Rowdy Good Time

Skullduggery - Sacred Fools

John Bobek and Brendan Hunt (center) and the cast of Skullduggery. All photos by Jessica Sherman Photography

I love a good prequel, especially when a contemporary playwright decides to take on the back story of a hallowed play by the likes of William Shakespeare. I mean, come on. Daring to tread on that playing field takes some guts because you know before you begin that audiences are going to have high expectations of your work. They also know where you need to end your story in order for Shakespeare’s to begin so getting there must be highly inventive and worthy of its foregone conclusion.

LA-based playwright Michael Shaw Fisher proves he’s up to the task in his latest new work Skullduggery: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet, a rowdy and irreverent precursor to Shakespeare’s revenge play, Hamlet. The musical comedy is a smart contrast in tone that opens up a clever pathway for foreshadowing later events and introducing the quirks of Shakespeare’s dramatic characters, like Ophelia’s (Alyssa Rupert) madness and Polonius’ (Curt Bonnem) convoluted conversation. It also allows for a slew of new characters to emerge that are completely unpredictable. You never know what this bunch of crackpots will do next.

Instead of simply the skull of a jester we meet in passing in Hamlet (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”) Yorick (scene-stealing Brendan Hunt) is a real person – a falling-down drunkard with more than his fair share of secrets. Hunt doesn’t even have to try to be funny. All he has to do is try to stand up and it becomes a study in how to create an unforgettable character. When his arm gets stuck in a set piece or he slips while walking across the stage, it’s a lesson in improv you can’t pass up.

Hamlet Sr. (David Haverty), appearing in Hamlet as a ghost only, is still alive, and three boisterous roustabouts (Jeff Sumner, Matt Valle and Cj Merriman) who will take up new careers as gravediggers before Skullduggery is over will reveal all the mysteries heretofore unsolved.

When this show works it works really well and a lot of that is due to the understanding they (and Hunt) have of how to bring the material to life. In truth, it’s the fusion of their acting chops and director Scott Leggett’s terrific ability to wring the funny out of Fisher’s writing that makes Skullduggery so much fun.

Skullduggery - Sacred Fools

L-R; Jeff Sumner, Matt Valle and Cj Merriman

Each of the three has a distinct personality and role in their lively trio. They sing, they dance, they move like wraiths cloaked in black à la Martha Graham and, whenever they appear, they buoy up the merriment. Leggett’s adept staging and Natasha Norman’s cheeky choreography are a delicious combination that this show wears well.

Skullduggery takes place thirty years before Hamlet begins when brothers Claudius (John Bobek) and Hamlet are young men. Claudius and Gertrude (Leigh Wulff) have fallen in love but when Hamlet goes off to war with their father and dear old dad is killed on the battlefield, Hamlet returns and marries her while Claudius is away at school. Seven years later, Claudius comes home to Elsinore and learns the bitter truth. Yorick’s uncanny ability to predict the future eventually convinces Claudius to join him in his drunken revolution to overthrow the now King Hamlet and take back what he lost.

L-R: John Bobek and David Haverty

L-R: John Bobek and David Haverty

Where Hamlet follows the perspective of King Hamlet’s son, Skullduggery is really Claudius’ story of what led up to the murder. Bobek (as Claudius) is a likable leading man with a strong singing voice whose journey begins hesitantly, and is at times quite comical, with his hypoglycemic fainting spells a regular occurrence. As he gains confidence, his earnest demeanor propels him forward until he takes bold action to achieve his desired end. Haverty goes from battle-ready to war-weary and his few moments of vulnerability add depth to a very traditional character.

As their object of affection, Wulff looks the part of a regal queen but is acting as though she is in an entirely different play. A scene can be serious in a musical comedy but it still needs to have an intensity behind it that is consistent with the style of the play. And, whether or not an actor is miked (they are not here), it is critical that the audience hears their dialogue. In this case, we can’t hear her and the acting is so internal that it comes across as flat. Rebecca Larsen (Berta) does the same thing in her scenes although her wisecracks do land when we can hear them. Both have a bigger problem swallowing their vocals during their songs which gives them an uncomfortably thin, reedy sound, neck veins straining to reach the notes.

It’s too bad because Fisher’s score is an appealing combination of musical styles that includes everything from electro-funk, Lennon-esque tunes, and Sondheim-inspired verses to Renaissance folk, drinking songs, and sea shanties. I even heard something resembling The Pink Panther hidden in the mix. When it goes all out rock, it’s even better.

Musical director Michael Teoli uses instruments you don’t often hear together in a musical to create some cool sound paintings and eerie effects in his arrangements for the show. He features marimba, mandolin, and guitar, and even tuba on “Twenty-Three” at the top of Act II to recap the story and move the audience forward twenty-three years. Vocal harmonies, especially the intentionally dissonant phrases, are deceptively simple and add subtle texture. It’s an artful working of the score that creates a musical world just slightly off enough to catch your ear because it isn’t at all traditional.

Leigh Wulff and John Bobek

Leigh Wulff and John Bobek

Lyrically there are nods to popular Shakespeare phrases and a good bit of punning if you listen closely. You’d have to see the show a second time to catch all the Shakespeare in-jokes Fisher has included so keep your ear tuned.

Sacred Fools’ new Hollywood venue is a step up from their previous location for this kind of musical adventure and the creative team has done some impressive work here. DeAnne Millais’ polished scenic design features open wooden panels, a curved staircase, and some highly effective scene painting (by Joyce Hutter) to bring the Elizabethan era’s stone and bone to life. A cabinet of skulls does double duty stage left while a fabric panel hanging stage right makes tapestry changes via Ben Rock’s rich video projections to further enhance locations. Gorgeous costumes by Linda Muggeridge look expensive under Andrew Schmedake’s saturated lighting design.

Making Shakespeare a good time isn’t always easy but Skullduggery: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet accomplishes that goal and delivers an exhilarating crowd-pleaser. The laughs are infectious, the fun factor high. Maybe every Shakespearean tragedy should come with a comedy prequel.

SKULLDUGGERY: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet
September 30 – November 5, 2016
Sacred Fools Theater Company
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: www.sacredfools.org

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Review: The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare)

The Tragedy of JFK

Chad Brannon (center) and cast. Photos by Rick Baumgartner

The Blank Theatre opens its 26th season with a new work written and directed by founding artistic director Daniel Henning that explores one of the most controversial events in U.S. history – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) is the result of several decades of research during which time Henning has come to be recognized as an authority on the subject. That, combined with his other great obsession – live theatre – meant it was only a matter of time before LA audiences would see a stage play based on his work.

It isn’t the first time a political leader’s life has been cut short by opposing forces. JFK’s story bears uncanny similarities to another ruler who lived more than 2,000 years ago during the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of a group of conspirators would prompt another playwright in England – William Shakespeare – to write his own story of the machinations of men, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, in 1599.

Though separated by thousands of years, the two men do seem eerily connected, with one important difference. The public knew who killed Caesar, but JFK? That’s a whole other ball of wax.

Although the Warren Commission, tasked with the JFK investigation, would find that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in gunning down the president, conspiracy theories abound. There were many who had something to gain by JFK’s death. Henning connects the dots in a way that rids the story of its misinformation and draws compelling conclusions about the events (by way of theatrical exploration) that are hard to deny.

To tell the story, he uses much of the Julius Caesar text, skillfully merging our historical characters and their Shakespearean alter egos. The cadence of the contemporary regional accents and classical verse works well together as does the straightforward tone of the piece. Henning strips away all distractions and focuses in on what is said and who is saying it. In doing so, the parallels between characters like Caesar and JFK (Ford Austin), Brutus and LBJ (Time Winters), Cassius and J. Edgar Hoover (Tony Abatemarco), or Marc Antony and Bobby Kennedy (Chad Brannon) become chillingly apparent.

Tragedy of JFK - The Blank

L-R: Time Winters, Bruce Nehlsen, and Tony Abatemarco

Abatemarco’s Hoover is a cunning creation whose resentment of JFK is obvious from the very beginning. His Machiavellian overtures come couched within an oily persona that only becomes more disgusting with every wonderfully vile speech he bites into. We love to hate him. As Lyndon Johnson, Winters presents a meticulous portrait of a man of ambition who will not be underestimated. He is a commanding presence amid the players and uses intimidation as it suits him.

Austin captures JFK’s effortless charm in passages like the “I will not come” dialogue after Jackie (Casey McKinnon) warns him not to go forth today (the same warning Shakespeare’s Calpernia gives Caesar before he is assassinated at the Senate). McKinnon is a gentle Jackie, full of grace, with a stunning resemblance to the first lady. Brannon’s two best moments, the “Cry havoc” speech and his “I come to bury Caesar” diatribe full of thinly-veiled malice, resonate deeply.

The Tragedy of JFK

Casey McKinnon and Ford Austin

The entire cast is equally as skilled, with additional notable performances from Susan Denaker as Lady Bird Johnson and Brett Collier as Martin Luther King, Jr.

The timeline of the play covers the events leading up to the assassination and the fallout that follows it, reaching its climax during a powerful scene recreating Dr. King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A lyric revision turns the civil rights anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” into an emotional high point creating a kind of false ending before the play moves on to LBJ’s presidency, his decision not to run for re-election in 1968, and the events at the Ambassador Hotel that same year when Bobby Kennedy would be shot.

An uncomplicated technical design benefits the production by keeping the audience’s attention riveted on the characters. Historical footage projected on the set is the lone obvious enhancement that introduces theatricality to the overall effect. It’s beautifully done.

The Tragedy of JFK presents a compelling explanation for one of the most horrific events in U.S. history and Henning’s production contains some of the finest work you’ll see on a stage in LA. This is an exceptional cast telling an extraordinary story and one of the best nights of theatre you’ll see in 2016.

THE TRAGEDY OF JFK (As Told By Wm. Shakespeare)
October 1 – November 6, 2016 (Extended through Nov 20)
The Blank Theatre at The Skylight Theatre
1816½ N. Vermont
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Tickets: www.theblank.com

Review: Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival – The Experience/Richard III

Richard III - ISC

David Melville as Richard III. Photo by Reynaldo Macias

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

How many different ways are there to say how much Angelenos love the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival? Thousands. Ask anyone who’s ever parked themselves on a blanket or lawn chair with their family and friends and you’ll get as many different answers as there are people in the audience.

Some come for the ambience, others to see quality theatre performances at an affordable price (free, but donations are always encouraged). Some simply want to enjoy the sense of community the event fosters, and still others are there to learn, to converse, or to challenge themselves with something new.

Regardless, few would argue that sitting out under the stars listening to Shakespeare’s words is a singularly perfect Los Angeles summer tradition. In case you need more convincing, I’ll give you my Top 5 Reasons to go.  More

Review: Imagination Reigns in Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s HENRY V

Henry V - Kingsmen

Ty Mayberry (center) and the cast of Henry V

Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V takes its cue from one of Shakespeare’s most well-known speeches, “O for a Muse of fire…,” the prologue to this play. In it, Shakespeare invites the audience to use its imagination in viewing what is about to transpire, to picture the battle scenes that will take place and the great kings who will lead their armies across the vast countryside, all represented on this humble stage.

Director Michael J. Arndt follows through with this idea of sparking imagination by taking a minimalist approach to the production design leaving a wide open stage upon which fight choreographer Jason D. Rennie stages battle scenes using the largest number of actors to date in a Kingsmen production – some 35 in all. For the Battle of Agincourt, Rennie even incorporates the use of synchronized longbows which were vital to the English conquering the French, who greatly outnumbered them on the battlefield. The effect is quite stunning.  More

Review: Romeo and Juliet through the Lens of the Middle East by way of Topanga Canyon

Romeo and Juliet - Theatricum Botanicum

Judy Durkin and Shaun Taylor-Corbett. All photos by Miriam Geer

Not even a wall can keep these lovers apart.

This particular wall happens to be in modern-day East Jerusalem and as Theatricum Botanicum’s production of Romeo and Juliet commences, chaos ignites at a checkpoint that divides Israel and Palestine. It is a city that has seen struggle for thousands of years and for one Muslim boy named Romeo and one Jewish girl named Juliet, not even their innocence can change the course of this story.

Following a prologue that ominously shakes its finger at what’s to come, director Ellen Geer’s opening sequence flashes to life in a rush of sound and movement. I could feel my heart start to race as the briskly choreographed fight scene reached its pivotal high point. Geer’s production wastes no time in defining the stakes of this all too real world and the intensity of fight choreographer Aaron Hendry’s skirmishes pulse like a pressure cooker as pent-up emotions erupt again and again.

The show connects on a visceral level because the Middle East’s ongoing crisis, though half a world away, still has repercussions in our own back yard. Local actions have global consequences and, until we accept that we all bear the burden of that responsibility, peace will remain elusive and loss is inevitable. The Capulets and Montagues show us how devastating that loss can be.
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Review: ISC Presents a Smart, Strong OTHELLO in the Studio

OTHELLO - ISC

Evan Lewis Smith as Othello. Photo credit: Grettel Cortes

Something interesting happens when you remove race as the primary motivator in Shakespeare’s Othello. The play’s message about the progression of evil becomes even more universal. What was a story about a man destroying another man because of the color of his skin is now part of a larger more enigmatic narrative exploring hate, jealousy, and obsession from a less obvious perspective. It also reveals how masterfully Shakespeare wrote the nuances of human frailty.

Independent Shakespeare Co. and director Melissa Chalsma explore this spin on Othello’s message by casting the company with a multiethnic group of actors. They do it regularly in their Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival productions to reflect the cultural make-up of Los Angeles and to make the work as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Here it is particularly significant because it downplays the white vs. black struggle and instead focuses the audience’s attention on what goes on in Iago’s mind. It allows us to witness the corruption evolve from beginning to horrible end and to see these two characters not as a black man and a white man but simply as men. In this kind of scenario, Shakespeare’s words take on radically new colors, to the delight of audience members who may have seen the play before and think they know what to expect.  More

Review: This TEMPEST REDUX will Blow Your Mind

Tempest Redux

Jack Stehlin (Prospero) with Willem Long and Dash Pepin (Caliban) Photo credit: Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin

Shakespeare knew the power of conjuring a storm that would turn the world upside down when he wrote The Tempest. He filled it with magic, fantastical elements, and resilient characters in an exotic location to create an unforgettable story of love, loss, redemption, and regret. Now, director John Farmanesh-Bocca reinvents Shakespeare’s masterpiece in the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and The New American Theatre’s highly original production starring Jack Stehlin.

Betrayed by his brother and cast away to live out his days alone on an island with his young daughter, Stehlin’s Prospero orchestrates a monumental series of events that will bring his usurper to him in order to set things right. But this is not your typical revenge play and you would do well to reserve judgement about what you think you see until the play has ended.

For in Farmanesh-Bocca’s vision, everything rests on a single new idea. This ultimate “what if” transcends all expectations and is a haunting reminder that if you give over to the story being told, the journey will not disappoint. In fact, I found this production to be so profoundly moving, so exciting and original, that I cannot urge you enough to go see it. If you only make time for one Shakespeare production this year, let it be this one.  More

Review: Margaret’s Story Comes Front and Center in Shakespeare’s Rose Queen

Rose Queen

Megan Rippey and Brian White

While she may not be as recognizable as Beatrice, Viola, Lady Macbeth or many of his more popular leading ladies, Margaret of Anjou is nonetheless a significant presence in Shakespeare’s history plays – specifically the first tetralogy of the War of the Roses. In this 4-part series (Henry VI Parts 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III) she is a remarkable figure.

We first meet her as a young girl at the end of Henry VI, Part 1 when she is taken prisoner by Suffolk and becomes part of a peace deal between France and England to marry King Henry. In the subsequent plays, she rapidly grows into her power, transitioning from queen to conspirator to warrior, eventually ending up a bitter old woman by the time we get to Richard III. Now beholden to those who murdered her family, she lavishes curses on everyone who has wronged her, many of which mysteriously come to pass.

In truth, much of Margaret’s story is fiction. She never met and carried on a love affair with Suffolk and scenes that show her hand in destroying the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were also wrought from Shakespeare’s imagination. Her purpose, then, became a way for the playwright to track the evolution of evil in a formidable character. She is nothing if not memorable.

Now Ensemble Shakespeare Theater takes that progression and builds a complete play around it with Margaret in the starring role. The piece is a thought-provoking study that pulls her story out of the Shakespeare canon and places it front and center, painting a fascinating picture of a complex and powerful woman. More

Review: Romeo and Juliet wrestle with Love and Hate in a modern-day world

Romeo and Juliet - A Noise Within

Will Bradley and Donnla Hughes. Photos by Craig Schwartz

In director Dámaso Rodríguez’s version of Romeo and Juliet, a group of actors gathers to put on the play in a graffiti-covered alley. A pair of dumpsters, two wooden pallets, and a movable iron ladder makes up the bulk of the set pieces. Everything is covered in spray paint and decay.

The contemporary urban setting adds significant weight to the themes of Shakespeare’s story and is remarkably shrewd in its point of view. Graffiti as an art form has long been the expression of those whose opinions run contrary to society, much like we see in the characters of Romeo and Juliet.

Born into two families who have hated each other for longer than anyone can remember, they defy their parents and fall in love. Right or wrong, they will do anything to be together. It is a stance that every teenager understands – the moment when you begin to pull away from authority and make your own choices regardless of the consequences – that speaks to the popularity of the play, generation after generation.

On this canvas, love and hate struggle for the upper hand. And while we know how the story ends, it doesn’t mean we still don’t hope that this time, somehow, the tragedy will be averted. It is powerful – this ongoing conversation about love and hate, especially in 2016.  More

Review: “Shakespeare’s Last Night Out.” More than just a Simple Tavern Musical

Shakespeare's Last Night Out

This one act play with music was the surprise of my weekend. Not because of what I already knew about it, of course, based on press materials and previous word of mouth from friends who saw it at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, but because of something no one had thought to mention. That for all its rowdy comedy, bawdy innuendo and drunken delights, Michael Shaw Fisher has written, and performs, a piece that reveals Shakespeare’s heart in moments of genuine vulnerability making it more than simply a passing fringe fancy. This one man 75-minute Elizabethan tavern musical could easily tour the country in every intimate venue, educational setting, pub or cabaret house smart enough to book it.

Fisher’s sharp writing, impeccable storytelling, and comedic timing aren’t a surprise given that we’ve previously seen fringe musicals like Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment, Doomsday Cabaret, and The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd showcase his irreverent wit. But taking on Shakespeare means stepping into some pretty big historical boots and the question is always, is the actor up to the task. Yes, my friends. Yes, he is.  More

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