Saturday, January 4, 2014

EclecticPound customizes the Bard, stripping 10 plays down for speed

ElecticPond Theatre Company, whose meat and drink is Shakespeare, is taking advantage of the long, cold slog into the New Year to serve up Bard-flavored truffles in "10x10: Shakespeare's Top Ten Plays, Ten Minutes Each."

Witches in 'The Scottish Play" get down with spookiness.
The company will run through this slap-happy revival just once more (Jan. 5 finale has been canceled because of the approaching snowstorm), using  an olio of contemporary speech (including asides and brief commentary) and original lines from the plays.  Nose-thumbing tributes are offered to "Othello," "Twelfth Night," "Julius Caesar," "Much Ado About Nothing, "Macbeth," "Henry V,"  "Richard III," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet."

Artistic director Thomas Cardwell has devised spoofs that either skim the plays or burrow within them only far enough to pick out the juicy bits. It is a superficial survey, in the best sense of the term. And it is mostly as funny as it tries to be.

In the thematic category is a "Richard III"  sketch with a confusion of doomed, resentful, hunchback, usurping kings — apparently inspired by a blend of the Monty Python sketch about a home to cure overacting (populated only by Richard IIIs) and Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" routine. In the spirit of "when Will gets silly, let him roll," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is presented with an emphasis on the fledgling theatrical venture of Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals," relieved only by cameo turns as fairy royalty for the ETC artistic director and its managing director (Cat Cardwell). The plot skein involving the four lovers lost in the woods is worth only a few phlegmatic references.

The sketches require broad acquaintance with the covered plays only in some details. Familiarity will also help you keep pace with this large and energetic company's own frantic tempo. The confusion of identities in ETC's sketch of "Twelfth Night," for example, is best appreciated if you know the original's entanglements. Other than that, there are some droll digs at the plays' occasional lapses from common sense, such as Friar Laurence's daft plan for keeping Romeo and Juliet alive and safe.  (Spoiler alert: They end up neither.)

Some sketches hit hard at a few targets, turning the bull's-eye to pulp. "Macbeth" alludes consistently to the old theatrical superstition that it's bad luck to refer to the tragedy other than as "the Scottish play." Scottish burrs that were all thistle and oozing vowels dominated the Jan. 3 performance I atended, with particularly throaty gusto from Bill Wilkison in the title role. The play's intersection of raw ambition with the supernatural interference of ghosts and witches made for a rich source of fun.

In "Much Ado About Nothing,"  the battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick becomes stylized as a WWF struggle of pokes, chops, knocks and sucker punches in the ring. Kate Homan and Jeremy Grimmer, who played the roles in the complete "MAAN" last season, gamely do battle once again here.

Sometimes the travesty yields a point of view that's worth considering about the play:  Is Cassius merely a sociopath who manipulates the circumspect Brutus in "Julius Caesar"?  This version tries that theory on for size, and it fits about as well as a loosely clasped toga must have in ancient Rome. And what about Hamlet, the "Cheese Danish," as he rantingly calls himself in the graveyard scene? Is he perhaps crazy from the get-go, in Shakespeare as well as in Cardwell?  Matt Anderson, cradling a skull in one arm like a fool's bauble as he lurches from scene to scene, certainly suggests that possibility.

The heartiness with which the ETC throws itself into this farrago of nonsense (plus a pinch of sense) is admirable. Not all Shakespeare lovers will be enchanted by "10x10," but perhaps they could use Duke Theseus' reminder to his Athenian court in the midst of the rude mechanicals' play — "the silliest stuff that ever I heard," as Hippolyta calls it.

"The best in this kind are but shadows," the King says, gently chiding his wife, "and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them."  This production features some of "the best in this kind" around; all you have to do is bring your imagination to it, ready to amend.

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