After a two-week run of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare in the Park, Part Deux opened last weekend, and the new show's three-man cast generates so much power that the Nashville Shakespeare Festival might try converting their efforts into Renewable Energy Certificates, to be sold to raise money for the company's needy coffers.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) has received its share of local stagings in recent years, but with imaginative actors it can still be surprisingly comedic. Under Denice Hicks' direction, the three players—Benjamin Reed, Brad Brown and Christopher Campbell, smartly shod in Converse high-tops—go exceedingly athletic with the literary lampooning, and the payoff is big.
After the deadpan reading of Shakespeare's fractured bio—filled with funny facts about a certain U.S. president—Brown kicks things off in revivalist preacher style, leading the way into a full-bodied destruction of Romeo and Juliet, with Reed offering the first of the evening's many incidents of cross-dressing.
From there to the end of Act 1, the 16 comedies are wrapped into one long tongue-in-cheek exegesis, featuring celebrity photos as a visual aid. Meanwhile, the history plays are accorded the Monday Night Football treatment. There's also an Othello rap ("You big dummy, she wadn't no ho' ") and a Titus Andronicus cooking show that looks suspiciously like a Food Network episode starring Paula Deen. Julius Caesar gets skewered quickly but effectively, Macbeth is enacted in shades of plaid ("McTell me McMore"), and the one-line gag "Timon of Athens, Georgia" is all we need to summarize one of the Bard's least popular works.
Act 2 is dedicated almost solely to Hamlet, Shakespeare's most widely recognizable classic. The actors gradually increase the pace to lightning speed, and then perform the play backwards, but not before they present an extensive analysis of Ophelia's personality conducted like a Second City improv game, complete with audience participation.
Some musical references here make more sense than others, but almost all evoke a smile. Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird," the familiar string motif from Psycho, the Star Wars theme and Rick Astley's 1987 pop hit "Never Gonna Give You Up" are just a few examples.
Brown, Campbell and Reed maintain an exhausting regimen, yet their enthusiasm never flags. In fact, watching them work is as entertaining as any of the bon mots they toss out. Happily, the broader physical comedy is balanced with genuine wit and good-natured bawdiness—and Campbell's brief romp on a pogo-stick is priceless.
So go enjoy, and throw what you can into the NSF donation buckets, which will be out in force for the show's run. Nashville Shakespeare Festival has become one of the cultural high points of summer in our little hamlet, and we'd much prefer that it continue to be than not to be, so don't be a Tituswad—keep this midsummer night's dream alive.
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