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When insult comic Don Rickles played Las Vegas showrooms in the 1960s, the more some poor “hockey puck” schmuck slunk down in his seat to avoid Rickles’ gaze and thus his tart tongue, the more the comedian would prey on him.
The cast and crew of City Repertory Theatre promise that won’t happen during their outdoor production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” a silly, outrageous, satirical take on the Bard’s oeuvre that’s packed with improv and audience participation.
When patrons take their seat upon the grassy field of the Palm Coast Arts Foundation to attend the City Rep production from Oct. 2-11 – the theater’s first live shows since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown began in March — they can choose to pick up instructions for the three-person cast.
“We will have little signs that you can get so we will know if you want to be part of the participation or not,” says CRT veteran actor Beau Wade, who plays the character named “Beau” – much like Bethany Stillion portrays “Bethany” and Bruce Popielarski plays “Bruce.”
“The signs say ‘Stay the hell away from me,’ ” Wade insists.
Turns out he’s joking about the exact verbiage.
“The signs say ‘Leave me alone,’ not ‘Stay the hell away from me,’ ” says City Rep director John Sbordone. “That would cost too much and be outside our budget – too many words,” he deadpans.
But Sbordone’s joke – and the signs’ very existence – point to somber realities. The signs will serve not only a theatrical purpose but also a practical, health-related purpose given the pandemic. Those “Leave me alone” placards and the socially distant seating in front of the stage constructed beside the PCAF pavilion (now uncovered since its tent was destroyed by wind damage in February) will give patrons the level of isolation they desire.
And Sbordone’s quip about the budget is a reminder that City Rep, like so many performing arts organizations, museums, the live music industry, movie theaters and other entertainment entities, has taken an economic hit since the shutdown shrouded the U.S. The company still has bills to pay, chief among them the rent for its black box theater in City Marketplace in Palm Coast.
City Rep’s last live show was “Romeo and Juliet,” the latest of the troupe’s now-annual Shakespeare productions, which ended its run on March 1. A group of CRT veterans created an online/virtual cabaret, “Bridging the Distance: Songs of Love, Hope and Harmony,” which debuted in May (viewable on YouTube here.)
“That brought in some money and kept people active, which is what we’ve been looking to do,” Sbordone says.
A GoFundMe page, Support City Repertory Theatre, has been up since April 3 and has raised $2,000. (See it online here.)
CRT had the idea to stage an outdoor production “very early on,” Sbordone says, but summer in Florida – with is heat, mosquitoes and thunderstorms – made that impractical.
The stagecraft expenses of “Shakespeare (Abridged)” are low. Showtimes are early evenings and Sunday afternoons, so lighting rental was not required, and “our good friends here at the Palm Coast Arts Foundation said go ahead and use the space, which is great,” Sbordone says.After the run of “Shakespeare (Abridged),” City Rep will stage the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” Nov. 27-Dec. 6 outdoors at PCAF, and add an additional weekend of shows if there is a demand, Sbordone says.
Beyond that, CRT’s season is tentative: Plans call for Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in March, and David Ives’ “All in the Timing,” a collection of one-acts, beyond that.
“We are doing what we can do to survive,” Sbordone says. “Our patrons have always been very generous with us. We are not crying wolf yet.”
He hesitates even as a sardonic laugh escapes him, then says: “We have outlays of expenses. If ‘Shakespeare (Abridged)’ doesn’t work, if ‘Little Shop’ doesn’t work, then we will have to re-evaluate.”
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” was chosen as City Rep’s re-entry into live theater because it “fits the bill in a number of different ways,” Sbordone says. The small cast makes it more Covid resistant, and yes they have been tested along with taking other precautions. Also, the absurd spoof throws CRT’s productions of traditional Shakespeare into sharp relief.
“And it’s just hilarious and we needed something light and frivolous” Sbordone says. “We keep hearing that people want someplace to go, something to do, so that’s why we’ve chosen a flat-out comedy for our opening.”
The play, written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987, and later ran for nine years at the Criterion Theatre in London. It parodies all 37 plays of the Bard by shrinking them to near-Twitter-esque brevity or crafting them into absurd mash-ups. The plays take on “Hamlet,” for example, typically clocks in at 43 seconds. Live theater’s proverbial “fourth wall” is nowhere to be found as the actors address patrons directly and engage in audience participation – except for, in the case of City Rep, those brandishing those “Leave me alone” signs.
All of City Rep’s cast and crew – director Sbordone, actors Bethany Stillion, Beau Wade and Bruce Popielarski, and stage manager Angela Young – have acted in and-or directed traditional Shakespeare productions, through City Rep stagings or elsewhere.
Stillion has performed in “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Tempest” with companies where she has lived in the Atlanta area, South Carolina and Jonesboro, Arkansas. She also founded and runs Rough Magic Shakespeare Company, which she describes as “my little company,” while its Facebook page describes it as “an independent theatre company dedicated to in-your-face Shakespeare and unexpected, small-cast original works by up-and-coming playwrights from around the world.”
All Rough Magic Shakespeare Company performances, except its last three, can be seen on YouTube, including its new 3×3 series of short, virtual, live theater performances captured on video – “one-take, without a net, live performances via Zoom,” Stillion says.
“I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and I’ve seen several Shakespeare spoofs,” she says. “I think this one is brilliant and certainly the best I’ve ever read or seen. It’s really clever, it’s really well done. It’s the first play that Rough Magic Shakespeare Company ever did, although I wasn’t in it. It’s a great introduction to Shakespeare, to get people used to live Shakespearean language being performed in a very non-intimidating and engaging way, a way to invite people to dip their toes into Shakespeare in a really fun way. That’s why he would want us to do this.”
Wade notes he has performed in three City Rep productions of Shakespeare, as well as a “Shakespeare evening” as part of Stillion’s 3×3 series.
“I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and I was like ‘I want to make fun of this guy!’ ” Wade says. “This show is a great avenue to poke a little fun at Shakespeare because, as lauded and great as Shakespeare is, there’s a lot of things just in the translations of 500 years that you are able to poke at. It’s a fun subject to parody.”
Besides, Stillion notes, Shakespeare was funny: “Even the murder plays had their comedic moments. In fact, I think a lot of people miss those now. They try to make things so dark. A lot of times I see a production and I go ‘You didn’t realize that was supposed to be funny? That was supposed to be a moment of levity in the middle of the real heavy stuff.’ ”
Wade adds: “There’s a line in this show – ‘We think Shakespeare’s tragedies are actually much funnier than the comedies.’ ”
Sbordone chuckles wickedly and says that Shakespeare actually did write a few “really bad plays. You try to read ‘King John’ – I dare you.”
Popielarski notes he saw CRT’s previous production of “Shakespeare (Abridged)” six years ago and “thought it was hilarious. I always wanted to be in it and I jumped at the chance since it’s been so boring during this time, the new normal. I needed to do something to keep myself sane.”
The improv elements of “Shakespeare (Abridged)” would seem to require a different skill set from actors compared to a traditional stage production – but that difference may not be as great as one suspects.
“As an actor I think you will have done at least a little bit of improv,” Wade says. “If you’re up on stage in a show and someone forgets their line, then you’re improv-ing. Improv is always a skill set that I think actors need to have. It doesn’t go one to one with Shakespearean acting. Obviously they are different. But there’s a difference between going to an improv show and going to a show with improv. When you’re in a show with improv, there is always a beat you have to get to, and you know that you’re creating a through-line to get to the next beat.”
“I think all acting is improvisation,” Sbordone says. “There is a book and a structure and actors have a plot line, but every production, every night, as Beau said, in order to be alive, has to have that quality of improv. Now that doesn’t mean improv funny, but it’s part of what you are and what you are doing. Here it’s an ample opportunity for it to be funny. As long as the actor knows where they have to get to and they stay within the parameters, the bounds of the integrity of the show – and this one doesn’t have any bounds – it will be a fun thing to do.”
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” directed by John Sbordone, written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, starring Bethany Stillion, Beau Wade and Bruce Popielarski. A City Repertory Theatre production, staged at 6 p.m. Oct. 2-3 and 9-10, and 3 p.m. Oct. 4 and 11. Performances will be at the Palm Coast Arts Foundation pavilion in Town Center, 1500 Central Ave., Palm Coast. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 students with ID, available online here and at the door the day of the show. Information: CRT at 386-585-9415.
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Kat Friel says
Excellent news. A sign that we are starting to live our lives again. I’ve missed the theater and can’t wait until the Playhouse can reopen too. Support the arts!