A Fool's Paradise: 30 Shakespeare Scenes in 60 Minutes
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Baltimore, Maryland
Thursday, June 2, 2016, B–109&110 (center stalls)
Adapted and Directed by Sarah Curnoles
Logan Davidson takes a selife along with the Weird Sisters (from left, Sabrina Sikes Thornton, Lisa Hodsoll, and Jenna Rossman) during the first scene of A Fools Paradise: 30 Shakespeare Scenes in 60 Minutes on the opening night of a preview run of the show at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Photo by Logan Davidson, obviously, A Fools Paradise.
The witches emerge out of darkness and electronica. "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?" Played by Lisa Hodsoll, Jenna Rossman, and Sabrina Sikes Thornton with faces of Charles Manson ecstasy, wiry bodies, and arms draping like tattered window dressing (though they are wearing simple, identical gym pants and t-shirts by Costume Designer Ben Kress), they are upon the heath to meet with Macbeth. The Macbeth that arrives, however, is Logan Davidson as a tourist in Scotland with a wayward GPS. Davidson nervously seeks to get past these three weird sisters who have suddenly accosted him about being a thane and king and (as they continue on with their prophesies about Banquo) being not so happy yet much happier and getting kings though never being one. Not once do Hodsoll, Rossman, or Thornton drop their characters or detour from their William Shakespeare–penned lines. Nor does Davidson turn into the real Macbeth but offers to take a selfie with "the locals." The witches oblige.
This opening moment sets the tone for A Fool's Paradise, a show of sketches by four Baltimore, Maryland, actors plus guest stars under the direction of Sarah Curnoles that combines good—and sometimes serious—Shakespeare with satirical silliness and Second City–style improvisation. The show, at the time called That Way Madness Lies, won the 2015 Charm City Fringe Audience Favorite Award and has been invited to this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The troupe is performing a four-show preview at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company this weekend to help raise money for the Edinburgh trip.
In a format that invites audience participation via the game of Bingo, the troupe sets a goal of performing 30 Shakespeare scenes in 60 minutes. They have 45 scenes listed in their repertoire. The audience receives this list of scenes along with a Bingo board in their programs. With Curnoles acting as master of ceremonies, the audience calls out scene numbers for the actors to perform. When anybody reaches Bingo, they are to shout it out, and their prize is taking part in one of the scenes. In the show we saw, the first winner played the red light/green light traffic cop in Julius Caesar, 3.1: "Et Tu, Brute" as the assassins sneak up behind Caesar's back. "Et Tu, Brute?" Caesar says upon being stabbed. The second winner also played red light/green light traffic cop, this time for Coriolanus, 5.6: "This Seems Familiar..." as the assassins sneak up behind Coriolanus's back. "Et tu, Aufidius?" Coriolanus says upon being stabbed.
Though the scenes are labeled, you don't know exactly what you are asking for. Some are straight enactments of Shakespeare's texts; some are texts with comic embellishments; and some are wholesale reinterpretations of the text. For example, Number 36, All's Well that Ends Well: Who is Helena's Baby Daddy? is a talk show called "All's Well that Ends Well," a cross of Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, and Cheaters. Ask for Number 11, Richard III, 1.2: Gloucester Marvels at His Scheming, you get Davidson speaking Richard's "Was ever woman in this humor woo'd?" soliloquy, and speaking it well.
Per the tone of the show's format, even some of the textually pure Shakespeare scenes are given frivolous treatment. But per Shakespeare's own craftsmanship, this troupe also knows when to nail a true Shakespearean moment. Romeo and Juliet 1.1: "Do You Bite Your Thumb, Sir?" while hyperactive in the performing, is superbly funny in its fealty to the text, after which Curnoles orders the troupe to do Romeo and Juliet, 2.2: The Balcony Scene. Davidson as Romeo and Thornton as Juliet present a sweet scene of young lovers, both tentative and brash at the same time, enthralled with this overwhelming feeling of love while stumbling over their inexperience at romance.
Davidson has solid verse-speaking skills, and Hodsoll, in particular, gets to the core of the characters she plays. In King Lear, 3.7: "Out, Vile Jelly," her Cornwall has the malevolent bearing of a mob boss, serpent-like in the way she delivers her lines in short bursts, giving a charge of danger to a scene that ends with her squishing and stomping Gloucester's two eyeballs (grapes serving as surrogate eyes). She turns in another satisfyingly authentic performance of the sleepwalking talking Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, 5.1: "Out, Damn Spot," and she gives an arresting "Friends, Romans, countrymen..." speech from Julius Caesar, 3.2, earning one of the evening's most enthusiastic ovations.
For the preview run the troupe are joined by guest stars, and on this night it is Chris Cotterman, associate artistic director of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, getting less than an hour of rehearsal time and no certainty of which scenes he will end up performing. Cotterman's shortened preparation time is evident in Henry VI Pt 1, 2.4: War of the Roses. This is that history play's Temple Garden scene in which the emerging factions of English nobility pluck red and white roses to display their allegiances. A pot of roses on the floor serves as the briar, which Cotterman as Somerset, burdened with holding a script in his hand, accidentally knocks over as he pulls out his red rose. This, however, leads to some improvisational lines in iambic pentameter from the rest of the troupe, incorporating knocking over briars as a sign of Somerset's truancy or honor, depending on which color rose the speaker prefers. On the other hand, in Much Ado About Nothing, 1.1: Benedick and Beatrice, Cotterman is a wonderfully flippant (and scriptless) Benedick paired with Rossman as a sharp Beatrice.
Curnoles as emcee, either by direct decree or selective hearing of the audience shouting out numbers, manages the program to make sure that not only do the Bingo winners perform in scenes geared for them but guest stars do specific pieces, too. Thus, Cotterman gets to play one of the evening's best bits, Timon of Athens: Meet Timon! "Hi!" Cotterman greets the audience with the glee of a 6-year-old crashing his parents' dinner party. "I'm Timon! I'm rich! Here's all my money!" He throws candy coins into the audience from a basket in his hand. "Now you are my friends!"
Making fun of Shakespeare's warts is part of the love we Shakesgeeks have for the playwright. It's why we want to see Titus Andronicus: A One-Person Titus Summary. This turns out to be Hodsoll giving Saturnius's opening political speech segueing into a capsulation of all the murders, mutilations, mayhem, and culinary expertise in the play, acted out in mime by the rest of the troupe behind her, including the swatting of the fly. In Troilus and Cressida: Get to the Good Stuff, Rossman skips the whole Trojan War matter in the play and portrays a rather steamy love scene between Troilus and Cressida with sock puppets (complete with Cressida whipping her long blond tresses). As the two socks get it on with some heavy petting right there on her hands, Rossman becomes increasingly uncomfortable. "Guys, I'm right here!" she tells them.
I call out "Seven!" which is labeled Henry VI Pt 2, 4.4: What's In the Box? I don't know which particular scene that is, but I want to know what's in the box. This turns out to be one of my favorite scenes—and one of the most bizarre—in the entire canon as Margaret caresses the decapitated head of Suffolk, her lover, in the court—even in the presence of her husband, King Henry, who is in council with his ministers about the Cade rebellion. The troupe plays this scene generally straight, except that when Hodsoll as Margaret pulls the scarf off the head she's fondling, it's actually a head of lettuce. The scene carries on, though the other actors (along with Curnoles at the back of the stage) are openly aware of the preposterousness of Hodsoll using a lettuce head for Suffolk's, which, in a sly way, plays up the actual preposterousness of the scene Shakespeare wrote.
It is in this manner that the show achieves one of its highlight moments with Number 44, Cymbeline, 1.1: A Soap Opera Kind of Love. We're talking a Telemundo novela kind of soap. Though the players remain true to the text, they overact mightily, the Queen appears with an accompanying soundtrack of dramatic musical chords, and the ring Imogen takes from her finger to give Posthumous is a huge ball of glittering diamonds. I'm one of those rare people who actually appreciates Shakespeare's craftsmanship with Cymbeline, but upon seeing this snippet, I'd love to see the novela treatment applied to the entire play in at least one production.
And I wouldn't mind if it were these five thespians doing it, too.
June 3, 2016