Banquo Is Me

There's nothing worse than bad Shakespeare. A successful mounting of any of the Bard's plays requires confident acting and a director and cast with a detailed knowledge of the material. Nevertheless, a pair of local stages have been overtaken by comedies of error that provide abundant laughs--both intentional and otherwise--at the Bard's expense. In Actors Theatre of Phoenix's The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged), three writers deconstruct Old Will in a mindless mockery of 36 of the master's plays. This frenetic farce goes for obvious laughs that aren't half as funny as some of the unintentional yuks collected by Southwest Shakespeare Company's tragic production of Othello, currently fouling the stage of a Mesa high school.

The staggering smell of horseshit surrounding Southwest Shakespeare's campus playhouse was a pungent harbinger: Execrable acting and nonexistent production values both are displayed to great advantage here. Following another of the company's extraneous green shows (this one consisting of a monotonous lecture by a falconer in Elizabethan drag carrying a large, listless bird), a dour group of young actors proceeds to trounce Shakespeare's most violent and best-constructed tragedy. Othello has no clown, but this production provides comic relief by way of inadvertently funny costuming and lighting cues and several laughable performances.

The single passable performance is by Jason Kuykendall, who turns out a striking if somewhat fey Iago. According to the program, Kuykendall is a graduate of the Southwest Shakespeare Company Conservatory, a fact that hasn't entirely destroyed his credibility. The actor portraying Iago must answer the 300-year-old question: Why did Iago betray Othello? Kuykendall's response seems to be "Because he is there": His Iago is an ordinary villain, a man who has been wronged and merely seeks revenge.

Although he has a handle on the rhythm and cadence of Shakespeare's language, Kuykendall's Iago would have benefited from some firm direction. He ends several of his weightier narrative speeches by mugging at the audience, then spinning on his heel and exiting. But his serviceable performance is high art alongside less convincing displays by the rest of the company, whose recitations are swallowed up by horrible acoustics and an ugly Styrofoam set.

Atrocious lighting and costuming don't help. Stage lights wink on and off during the performance, leaving several actors to deliver pertinent speeches in the dark. And a teeny costuming budget is presumably the reason for the cheap, unattractive sweat pants and nylon jerkins the actors sport onstage. The shiny leatherette battle attire worn by Iago and Othello make the actors look like a pair of Barcaloungers.

The sight of two men dressed as Naugahyde recliners tripping over Shakespearean dialogue was met with much tittering from the audience. I didn't laugh nearly so hard nor as often at the intentional comedy of The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) a few days later. One of the high points of this calisthenic comedy is its treatment of Othello as a rap number performed by three bards in the 'hood. But for every such funny bit (like Hamlet's ghost portrayed by a sweat sock), there's an overworked joke about men in tights or a pointless play on a Shakespearean soliloquy. Acted by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (in this case, local actors Gerald Burgess, Jon Gentry and Scott Hopkins), these Compleat Works just aren't all there.

The bulk of the material is underwritten and overplayed and relies on easy laughs and goofy gags for its humor. Casting Romeo and Juliet as a Wayne's World spoof is too easy and assumes that the audience will recognize Wayne and Garth. (Several of the blue-haired ladies at the matinee I attended found this confusing and unfunny.) The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus as a cooking show called Roman Meals was just plain disgusting; Gentry slobbering blood into a great spittoon and the creepy O.J. Simpson jokes grafted onto this gory, pointless sketch made it unwatchable. By the time the actors started pulling theater patrons up on stage and leading the audience in Elizabethan cheers, I was counting the minutes until the final curtain. Still, some of the funny bits are truly wonderful: The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is played in a Genie lift, and an all-too-brief version of The History of Troilus and Cressida as a performance-art piece provides some wicked laughs. And positioning Shakespeare's Histories as a football game pitting the Rabble against the Royals is a bit of genius that contains the funniest line of the first act: "Personal foul! Fictional character on the field!"

The most successful of the longer pieces is a sketch that fuses all 16 of Shakespeare's comedies into one play subtitled The Love Boat Goes to Verona. As its three narrators recite the long, convoluted plot, they brandish a potful of silly props--Barbie dolls and vodka bottles and a giant photograph of Jerry Lewis--to illustrate each point of the story. But all this propping eventually weighs down the production: As originally performed by its authors, sans costumes on an old television-studio backlot, this material played with the snappy spirit of improvisational comedy. But dressing up these sketches as a prop-intensive, sloppily costumed theater piece detracts from the quick wit of its writing.

The performers, all of them talented comic actors who've done better work, attempt to overcome the limits of the material by overacting and tossing off endless ad-libbed asides to the audience. Gentry in an ugly dress and messy wig is funny the first couple of times, but his interminable parade of damsels in a drag gag quickly loses its appeal. Burgess and Hopkins run around in tunics, spouting Shakespearean prose and howling like a 16th-century Beavis and Butt-head. The clowning occasionally pays off: The pair walks off with the second act, a series of takes on Hamlet that closes the show on an up note. Each Hamlet is played faster than the last, and the final version is played backward ("Be to not or be to?") in a hilarious curtain call.

Despite the amusing finish, much of what came before is too ordinary and played too broadly to be consistently fun. Even so, the goofy three-minute version of Othello--in which the cast members do the Macarena and sing about their penises--manages to bring more feeling to the Moor of Venice than did our local Shakespeare company's two-and-a-half-hour interpretation of the same play.

Othello continues through Saturday, February 1, at Mountain View High School Auditorium, 2700 East Brown in Mesa. The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) continues through Sunday, February 9, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela