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BWW Review: Shakespeare's History Plays Become a Zany STRANGE EVENTFUL HISTORY


One of the things Independent Shakespeare Co. does exceedingly well is communicate Shakespeare's text to audiences who may have little or no background with Shakespeare in a way that they can understand it. And since an audience member rarely comes back to see another production when they haven't had a good time (or been moved or changed in some way) the method of putting on a show becomes just as important as the desire to create something significant. This is where ISC excels. They know inherently how to make Shakespeare fun and relevant and engaging. Consequently, they have built a huge following that keeps coming back for more.

For STRANGE EVENTFUL HISTORY, an original play devised by ISC company members David Melville and cast (Erika Soto, Sam Breen and director Joseph Culliton) with contributions by William Shakespeare, contemporary stagecraft meets the kings and queens of England and launches a history lesson that is not only understandable but funny and smart and surprising as well.

Let's face it, unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool Shakespeare lover, the history plays can be a chore to slog through. Just keeping all the Henrys and Edwards and Margarets straight is a difficult enough task, without remembering which side of the War of the Roses they were on or who was betrayed by whom. Enter STRANGE EVENTFUL HISTORY, a zany romp through England's royal line of succession that unspools like a modern-day mystery. It proves that, with a little ingenuity, you can connect the dots, have a bit of fun, and make historical characters feel like real people.

We all know the stories of popular Shakespeare plays like Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer, and Macbeth but with an original play the audience has no idea what to expect, which makes the set-up even more important than ever. STRANGE EVENTFUL HISTORY's set-up is an open rehearsal for RICHARD III where The Actor (Melville) playing Richard finds his leading lady has quit, The Ingénue (Soto) who has replaced her has no idea what's happening, and without a director to keep everyone in hand, the haughty French stage manager (Breen) is running the show. Within minutes, the audience is indoctrinated into this backstage world and ready to go wherever the likable trio of actors takes it.

David Melville (foreground) with Sam Breen and Erika Soto

The Actor makes it his mission to enlighten The Ingénue - and the audience along with her - on the back story of 150 years of English sovereignty leading up to "Now is the winter of our discontent." So begins a humorous and stirring evening of theatre that entertains as much as it educates. If history class was this much fun everyone would go back to school.

The threesome acts out various moments from Shakespeare's plays as Melville explains it all using the side wall as a chalkboard to draw the family tree. It's fast, furious fun as they make theatre out of anything around them infusing humor and a brash modern sensibility into the tale that leaves no audience member behind. All in all, it's pretty brilliant the way it takes on its daunting task.

The pace is brisk but always clear and there are wonderful comic touches in the framing device and staging of scenes. Melville hilariously executes monumental battles between the French and English while kneeling on the lid of a trunk (surprise - they never win) and then turns around and delivers "Once more unto the breach" and the "St. Crispin's Day" speech with fervent intensity.

Bosco Flannagan's lighting design enhances the contrast between scenes by using strategic pools of light and smart LED effects that spotlight specific shifts in tone making passages like Henry VI's handing over the crown and imprisonment in the tower starkly dramatic. Add the uncredited sound design with its haunting drips of water and searing musical elements and you've got a structure that elevates the piece from studio work-in-progress to burgeoning showpiece.

Soto's best moments trace the evolution of Margaret of Anjou, from inexperienced princess to betrayed queen to vengeful warrior in a character development that exemplifies the best of all periods and displays the actress' ever-increasing range. Breen takes on a number of supporting roles but none are as memorable as his portrayal of a French maid teaching English to a young princess Catherine in preparation for her meeting with Henry V.

The play is clearly a joint effort between all participants, with much of it created out of the rehearsal process itself. Indeed, the origin of the piece was a set of classes taught by Melville that explored the women in Richard III's life, eventually becoming the basis for this play.

The Ingénue's arrival into the story could use some refinement in timing and they're still tinkering with the ending. You'll likely see a different one than I did and that's just fine. I had such a good time I'm planning to go back and see how it continues to develop.

October 22 - November 22, 2015
Independent Shakespeare Co.
Independent Studio
3191 Casitas Ave. #168
Los Angeles, CA 90039

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Pictured above: David Melville, Sam Breen and Erika Soto
Photo credit: Grettel Cortes

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