What happens when a small amateur theater group tries to put on a version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It with only seven actors? That’s the premise of Don Nigro’s The Curate Shakespeare, opening Friday, Jan. 11 at the Garfield Center. If you’re one of those who read the play in high school and wondered why it was considered a comedy, this version may be what you’ve been waiting for.
Directed by Earl Lewin, and produced by the Shore Shakespeare Company, The Curate Shakespeare is in many ways a logical follow-up to the company’s production of As You Like It – featuring many of the same cast and crew– this past summer. As Lewin remarks in his director’s notes in the playbill, the producers see the play as “a lampoon of their own production.”
The play came about when a professional acting company commissioned Nigro to write a version of As You Like It that could be performed by seven actors. Nigro, who has written over 400 plays, several inspired in some way by Shakespeare’s works, took the challenge as an opportunity to riff on the original, combining the Bard’s work with his own satiric take. It’s sort of a “Murphy’s Law” version of Shakespeare’s play – whatever can go wrong, does, usually in the funniest possible way. Originally produced in Terre Haute, Indiana by Indiana State University Summerstock in 1976, it has gone on to become a cult classic. Lewin, whose original dramas (most recently Hitched) have a nice blend of comedy and realism, is an ideal director for this high-spirited spoof of actors and community theater.
The play’s subtitle, “the record of one company’s attempt to perform the play by William Shakespeare,” is a good overview of what happens in the play. We see the actors, led by a rather dotty minister, bumble through a performance, complaining and fighting, blowing lines, mispronouncing characters’ names, and every now and then managing to deliver something like what the Bard intended. There’s considerable fun to be had with the props, the costumes and a lot of the stage business – and with snide comments on the actual play they’re trying to put on.
In an introductory scene, we learn that the company is about to go onstage before an apparently empty house – one cast member questions whether it’s even worth trying to do the play, while the minister who leads the troupe says there may be someone out there in the dark theater. In addition to not knowing whether there’s anyone watching, they are way short of the number of actors the script calls for – one cast member has died, another hasn’t bothered to show up, another has lost the ability to remember her lines. The minister says they can make do by doubling up on the parts and switching a few roles. Reluctantly, the cast agrees that the show must go on – there may be somebody watching, after all.
The play more or less follows the actual plot of As You Like It, which plot is right there –behind and between all the shenanigans. The original story of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” involves a group of aristocrats caught up in political intrigue and lovers’ triangles, They flee to the forest of Arden, where they mingle with country folk, adopt various disguises, and end up with quarrels mended and lovers re-united. With its aristocrats, young lovers, country bumpkins, a jester, and a cross-dressing heroine, it is in many ways a prototypical Shakespearean comedy. There’s a succinct summary of the play at the back of the playbill, for those who want to follow the action. It’s enjoyable and helpful reading for audience members before the play or during intermission.
Chris Rogers, one of the founders of Shore Shakespeare and a regular in Lewin’s original productions, plays the Curate — and “all the old men” in the play. The character’s unshakeable optimism is severely tested by all the major and minor disasters on- and off-stage, and Rogers makes the most of the comic potential of the part.
Kathy Jones takes the role of Rosalind, who acts as a chorus – setting the scenes, playing and singing the play’s songs, and commenting on the play. It’s a great part, and Jones delivers a winning performance. Rosalind was originally supposed to play the lead character, also named Rosalind, but Rosalind just can’t remember her lines so another actress is brought in at the last minute to take the part. Most recently seen as Audrey (the carnivorous plant) in Tred Avon’s Little Shop of Horrors, Jones is showing herself to be one of the most versatile performers in the region. She says in her playbill bio that she’s recently retired, giving her even more time for the theater — good news for local theater lovers!
Avra Sullivan is the co-founder of Shore Shakespeare and was the stage manager of their production of As You Like It. Here she plays Celia, one of the better actors in the amateur troupe, and something of a prima donna. The character’s role is complicated by a rocky backstage romance with one of her fellow actors — which keeps breaking out in their performance. Fortunately, their on-stage friends and lovers’ spats more or less fit into Shakespeare’s plot. Sullivan also plays three other characters.
Christina Kinlock, who took the role of Rosalind in Shore Shakespeare’s As You Like It, plays Audrey – who gets cast as Rosalind in this play! (The confusion of names is part of the fun of this production.) At first, the character panics at having her role changed. Then, realizing she’s gotten one of the star parts, she starts to put on airs. Kinlock does a nice job conveying the range of emotions, both in her nominal role and in the Shakespearean part she plays.
Troy Strootman, as Amiens, also reprises the character he played in the Shore Shakespeare play, Oliver — a sinister young aristocrat. He also takes on the role of Silvius, a country bumpkin in the comic subplot, with a perfect (and totally un-Shakespearean) hillbilly accent. Like most of the other actors, he’s obviously having fun — and it’s contagious. One of the central points of the play comes in his unsuccessful attempts (in the character of Jacques) to deliver the play’s most famous speech, “All the world’s a stage.” And, of course, massacres it.
Brian McGunigal is another Shore Shakespeare regular. He played Jacques in Shore Shakespeare’s production of As You Like It last summer. This time, he is cast as a clown, a depressed clown. He plays the role in a resigned deadpan, as if his character knows that he has to get through his scenes but has no intention of being funny or energetic or cheerful. What’s the point? Life is hard. No friends. Nobody loves him, not even himself. A subtle and very effective performance,
Max Hagan, making his debut with Shore Shakespeare, takes the role of William, who plays the romantic lead in the play. A graduate of Sewanee with a Theater Arts major, he most recently appeared as Leslie in The Hostage at Church Hill Theatre. He does a nice job portraying an earnest young actor who hasn’t quite figured out the nuances of performance. He keeps on trooping along even though the play is falling apart around him. Hagan has a good voice and joins troubadour Rosalind in several songs.
Barbi Bedell did her usual stellar work on the costumes for this production — an amusing juxtaposition of realism and deliberately amateurish period costumes for the play within the play. The set, designed by Lewin, is quite clever, with a view of “backstage” and various props and bits of furniture, some obviously–and purposefully-humorous and amateurish. And a special tip of the hat goes to Greg Minahan, who arranged the choreography and wrote original music for the various songs in Shakespeare’s play. The simple melodies and lovely harmonies of the songs felt right for the Shakespearian era.
All told, this is a fun production of an affectionate — but wickedly pointed — spoof of community theater and its inhabitants, particularly for anyone with a passing familiarity with Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The Elizabethan language of the play within the play and some of the nuances of the relationships between characters may make the play a bit challenging for younger audiences. It may be a bit sophisticated for the elementary-school set, who may find it boring. But there is also enough slapstick and funny parts to keep most children satisfied. It will depend on the specific child whether this play is a good introduction to Shakespeare or just another boring evening watching “adult” stuff when they could be playing video games. Older theater-goers should have a grand time — especially if they take a moment to read the synopsis of Shakespeare’s play before the curtain goes up.
The Curate Shakespeare opens Friday, Jan. 11 and runs through Jan. 20. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $15; call the box office at 410-810-2060 or email email@example.com for reservations.
Photo Gallery by Jane Jewell with the help of the cast, crew, and costumers of “The Curate Shakespeare”