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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Michael Shaw Fisher’s Skullduggery to open Sacred Fools’ 2016-17 Season

Skullduggery

Shakespeare’s words, “To thine own self be true” could easily be the tag line to Sacred Fools Theater Company’s upcoming 20th anniversary season. This bunch of fools will embark on a journey to do what they do best in 2016-17 and, according to co-artistic director Alicia Conway Rock, “reflect upon and celebrate what we call ‘Foolish’ — a spirit of irreverence and ingenuity underscored with energy and optimism that has been with us since the founding days of our company.”

To kick off that worthy endeavor is Skullduggery: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet, a collaboration between the Fools and writer/composer, Michael Shaw Fisher. Those familiar with Fisher’s previous works like Shakespeare’s Last Night Out, Exorcistic: The Rock Musical Parody Experiment, The Werewolves of Hollywood Blvd. and other Hollywood Fringe Festival hits know the kind of wit and invention he brings to the table.

If you’ve ever wondered what might have happened between Hamlet Sr., Gertrude, and Claudius, Fisher’s angle will unpack the story of their love triangle, song by song, in an unlikely journey from innocent youth to the “most foul” murder in the canon.

As for the music in this twisted tale, musical director Michael Teoli describes it as a rock musical “but it’s less hard-hitting rock and more eclectic. Think Tom Waits meets Stephen Sondheim meets David Lynch.” Teoli is also doing the arrangements for the show and says the instrumentation includes marimba, two guitars, Teoli on bass, and percussion (like cahone and bongos). It sounds pretty fabulous and, dare I say, even a bit spooky.

The show stars John Bobek as Claudius, David Haverty as Hamlet, Sr., and Leigh Wulff as Gertrude. Scott Leggett, whose performance as Fatty Arbuckle in Sacred Fools’ Stoneface was one for the book, directs. You’ve also seen his directorial work in Neverwhere; Beaverquest! The Musical; and Forbidden Zone: Live in the 6th Dimension, so be prepared.

Artwork for the season, including the Skullduggery image above, is by fine art painter Gabe Leonard, another long-time friend of the company. For a complete look at Sacred Fools’ upcoming season, go to www.sacredfools.org.

SKULLDUGGERY: THE MUSICAL PREQUEL TO HAMLET
September 23 – November 5, 2016 (Opening night 9/30)
Sacred Fools Theater Company
1076 Lillian Way
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Fri-Sat at 8pm. Sundays at 3pm beginning Oct. 16
Tickets and More Info: www.sacredfools.org

Casts Announced for world premieres of Skullduggery and The Tragedy of JFK

SkullduggeryBuckle up Shakespeare lovers – two new fall productions have announced the casts of their unique Shakespeare-inspired works, both opening the weekend of September 30. The first is Michael Shaw Fisher’s Skullduggery: The Musical Prequel to Hamlet, which begins previews at Sacred Fools Theatre Company Sept 23 and opens Friday, Sept 30. The world premiere musical comedy features book, music & lyrics by Fisher, arrangements & additional music by Michael Teoli, and is directed by Scott Leggett.

Told by the gravediggers, the story follows the love triangle of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet Sr. in song, until their journey ultimately leads to the climactic moment of Hamlet Sr.’s “most foul” murder. In his own singular style, Fisher connects the missing pieces of the story and answers questions like: What really happened to Yorick? And, what happened to Ophelia and Laertes’ mother? Before the tale is ended, ghosts, battles, and the bones of Shakespeare’s masterpiece will be uncovered and exposed to the light of day, with surprising insight.

Cast includes John Bobek as Claudius, Leigh Wulff as Gertrude, David Haverty as Hamlet Sr., Brendan Hunt as Yorick, Jeff Sumner as Delver, Matt Valle as Puddles, Cj Merriman as Dull, Rebecca Larsen as Berta, Curt Bonnem as Polonius, Alyssa Rupert as Ophelia, and Pat Towne as Osric/Ghost King. Tickets are available now at www.sacredfools.org.

Blank Theatre - Tragedy of JFKThe second world premiere is The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare), conceived, adapted, and directed by The Blank Theatre’s founding artistic director, Daniel Henning. Performances also begin Sept 24 with opening night set for Saturday, October 1 at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.

In this new play, Henning, who is a recognized expert on the JFK assassination, takes on the conspiracy to assassinate the 35th President of the United States using Shakespearian text. The result is a theatrical tale unlike anything you’ve seen before concerning the possible events surrounding one of the most shocking deaths in American history.

Henning’s cast includes Ford Austin as JFK, Chad Brannon (Robert F. Kennedy), Tony Abatemarco, Brian Brennan, Brett Collier, Cris D’Annunzio, Jerry Della Salla, Susan Denaker, John Knight, Jonathon Lamer, Kelie McIver, Casey McKinnon (Jackie Kennedy), Bruce Nehlsen, Jacob Sidney (McGeorge Bundy), Jonny Walker, and Time Winters as Lyndon B. Johnson. Tickets are available now at www.TheBlank.com.

One comedy, one tragedy – all your Shakespeare bases covered. Mark thy calendar now!

Shakespeare Preview: What to See in 2016

SHappy New Year and welcome back Shakespeare lovers! 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (April 23, 1564 – April 23, 1616) and that means it’s another big year ahead honoring one of the greatest writers of all time. Here’s a look at what’s coming so get out your calendars and make note.

Antaeus Theatre Company starts the year with its popular ClassicsFest reading series featuring four plays in January and February. Among them are Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning absurdist play, initiated by Bo Foxworth and Adrian LaTourelle, directed by John Henry Davis (Jan. 17 & 18), and Shakespeare’s classic The Winter’s Tale, initiated and directed by Elizabeth Swain (Jan. 31 & Feb. 1). These member-driven developmental readings are often the first step in the company’s progression to a fully-staged production and are a great way to become immersed in the plays. www.antaeus.org

For Valentine’s Day, A Noise Within will present Romeo & Juliet directed by Dámaso Rodríguez. Rodriguez is currently artistic director at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland but is well-known in LA. from his time spent as associate artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse and co-artistic director of Furious Theatre Company. In his streamlined interpretation of the story, he says, “the design and concept will evoke a street performance in an economically and socially repressed, centuries-old city.” It will remain focused on the play’s primary relationships and feature a diverse cast, original music by Martin Carrillo, and minimal props and costumes. A pre-show discussion will take place Feb. 17 prior to the performance at 6pm. Post-show conversations with the cast will follow the 8pm performances on March 18, April 8 & 29, and May 8 (2pm). www.anoisewithin.org

The Ensemble Shakespeare Theater has been developing an original work based on the fascinating character of Queen Margaret who appears in Henry VI Parts 1-3 and Richard III. Shakespeare’s Rose Queen is told from Margaret’s point of view and runs Feb. 20 – March 3 at Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena. Starring Megan Rippey as Margaret, Rose Queen’s gritty story will feature battles choreographed as movement pieces by Lineage Dance Company’s artistic director, Hilary Thomas, and other new elements of storytelling in an intimate theater setting. The cast also includes Brian White as Suffolk/Edward, Natalie Fryman as Eleanor/Richard III, Jay Blair as Henry VI, Sonny Calvano as Warwick, and other to be announced. Shakespeare’s Rose Queen follows previous original works by the company – Shakespeare’s Lovers and its international hit, Shakespeare’s Villains. www.californiashakespeare.org

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The Sacred Fools Take On Richard III

Gregory Sims, Cynthia Beckert, and Kimberly Atkinson in Richard III. Photo: Chris Millar

Was there ever a more fascinating villain than Shakespeare’s Richard III? He is morally repugnant and physically repulsive, yet he also displays a keen intellect and masterful wit beginning with the very first words he speaks in the play. “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” The poetry of that famous line itself is stunning and, in Richard, Shakespeare has created a character that uses words with dazzling facility, twisting and manipulating them much like he does the people around him. More

Sacred Fools Takes On Shakespeare’s Richard III

Sacred Fools brings to the stage Sir Richard of Gloucester’s unwavering quest to wrest the royal throne from its rightful heirs in Shakespeare’s Richard III, January 20 – February 25.

Just how far will Richard go, and what horrors will he visit on his land and family in his obsessive quest for the crown? Ben Rock directs Shakespeare’s dark masterpiece tale of sin and corruption; twisted, hacked, and reborn for 2012. 

The production will star Gregory Sims as Richard III, Leon Russom as Buckingham, Kathy Bell Denton as Queen Magaret and Kimberly Atkinson as Queen Elizabeth, along with Eric Giancoli as Hastings, Donal Thoms-Cappello as Catesby, Buck Zachary as Stanley, Cynthia Beckert as Duchess of York, Alexis Wolfe as Lady Anne, and Chairman Barnes as King Edward.

Richard III is produced by David Mayes, with Chris Millar and Gregory Sims. Sacred Fools Theater is located at 660 N. Heliotrope Drive Los Angeles, 90004. For tickets and more information go to www.sacredfools.org or call 310-281-8337.

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