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BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN REVUE at Joshua Tree Summer Theatre

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Director Miri Hunter joins Shakespeare with fellow Elizabethan playwrights.

BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN REVUE at Joshua Tree Summer Theatre

So four playwrights walk into a bar and the first one says .... sound like the setup for a joke? No, it's actually the premise for Shakespeare in Revue, the delightful second presentation by Joshua Tree's Theatre Under the Stars.

There has often been speculation as to whether William Shakespeare actually wrote all the plays and poems attributed to him, especially when he was actually producing, directing and sometimes acting in his plays as well. Director Miri Hunter has explored this hypothesis by joining Shakespeare with fellow Elizabethan playwrights Thomas Kyd, Francis Beaumont and Christopher Marlowe in a pub. It's not a far-fetched proposal that their works might have overlapped. All four playwrights were London-based contemporaries, each recognized as popular in their own lifetime, and there is evidence that Thomas Kyd wrote a version of Hamlet before Shakespeare did.

In Hunter's production, the bar is operated by Frances Beaumont (female version of Francis), wonderfully played by Chalise Kunz. She starts the play by turning the lights on in the bar and setting it up for the day's business, all the while singing lyrics that are actually Shakespeare's 18th sonnet ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"). Shakespeare is the next to enter, played by Kevin Hayles. He starts jotting down the words that he hears Beaumont singing. Soon they are joined by Nathan Bosworth's Thomas Kyd and Kurt Schauppner's flamboyant Christopher Marlowe (Marlowe's early death is laced with homosexual intrigue!). There is no effort to make the actors look like the playwrights (Shakespeare is played by an African American), and they are dressed as most patrons would be in any Joshua Tree watering hole.

The playwrights banter as any craftsmen would: "What are you working on these days?" "I've got one I call The Scottish Play." "That's too busy a title. Why not just call it The Play? Or name it after the leading character, that Macbeth fellow?" Then the three male playwrights gather together and start the familiar witches scene from Macbeth: "When shall we three meet again?" The next 75 minutes provide a parade of "Shakespeare's Greatest Lines." They start with excerpts from Macbeth with the best lines from the entire play taking perhaps 10 minutes. The lady playwright plays Macbeth, one of the fellows is Lady Macbeth, and there is indeed a dagger.

Segments follow from Merchant of Venice, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear, with incidental quotes from others, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream. It obviously helps to know your Shakespearean plays, but the majority of the lines used are the really familiar ones such as "To be, or not to be," or "How sharper than a serpent's tooth..." You certainly don't need a degree in English!

I think that even without knowing a word from Shakespeare's plays, this would still be a very enjoyable piece of entertainment because the director has kept the movement lively and used different staging for different segments. For the Lear bit, the four actors are called upon to play nine or ten characters so each of them gets handed a couple of large tarot cards which will help identify which character they are playing at the time. But don't fear that you might not keep track of who is whom at any moment. I'm pretty sure the director's tongue was firmly in her cheek as she asked her actors to create so many different characters and the fun comes from the fact that they are all working so feverishly!

The performers are uniformly excellent throughout. They make the iambic pentameter sound conversational, their familiarity with the material and strong rehearsal ensured no noticeable slips in delivery, and every time an actor reached for a prop, it was where it was supposed to be (and never take that for granted!). I was especially delighted with the occasional sword fights - and what's Shakespeare without a few good sword fights? I started laughing with glee.

The theatre in the round at Wind Walker's Medicine Wheel means everyone is in the front row, and the venue itself is absolutely stunning. They have increased the seating from 20 to about 28, but they still sell out quickly so book early. Use your GPS to travel down dirt roads - daunting, but certainly worth it. Arrive a bit early and stroll around the grounds. Then, claim your seat on the adobe benches. There are individual cushions but consider bringing an extra one. Wine and refreshments are available. Dark is just settling as the performance begins at 8:15, but even with a desert breeze, there's no chance of being chilly.


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