Getting Even With Shakespeare
nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
January 30, 2010
Imagine: it's freezing cold outside. After a less than stellar dinner, you and your date walk into a strip club and are then redirected into a hallway that supposedly leads to the elevator that supposedly leads to a theatre. (As it turns out, there is a front entrance to the theatre which you completely missed in your desperate attempt to get warm.) The theatre, once you arrive, is about the same size as your office, a Lilliputian space packed to the walls with people in folding metal chairs that are uncomfortably close to the temperature outdoors. Grateful that the extra beer you had to wash down the crap dinner is somehow still keeping your blood above freezing, you steel yourself for what you expect will be a very sore rear end from the 90 minutes you're about to spend in the chair. The lights go down. They come up and...all of the sudden it's an hour and a half later, your back end is only a little sore and not cold at all; you've laughed yourself silly and you're off to the bar, quoting the play you've just seen to each other like it's Blazing Saddles, or some other movie you've watched far too many times for you own good.
Such is the magic of Matt Saldarelli's Getting Even with Shakespeare. According to the press materials it's a premise he came up with back in college, handily revamped for Manhattan Repertory's Winterfest.
Ah yes, the premise: All of Shakespeare's tragic characters are condemned to a kind of purgatory; they must be in attendance at every performance of their respective plays anywhere they happen to be in the world. They are forever doomed to repeat their greatest monologues under times of personal duress—if Hamlet must make a decision, it doesn't happen until after he spits out THE soliloquy. This purgatory (an unintentional by-product of Shakespeare's genius) has given the characters time to adapt and "update" themselves to the modern world: Hamlet is the hipster poet, Macbeth appears as military vet, Romeo and Juliet are prep school kids, and Lear—well, Lear is that adorable old guy in the park taking a break from his run that most women want to bundle into a bag and take home with them. And then there's Ophelia. Ophelia #482 to be exact. It seems that Hamlet's gift in driving young ladies nuts has not diminished over the years. When not at the theatre, these characters while away their free time in an unnamed midtown bar, commiserating over the pain of having their head cut off and rammed onto a pike, or trying to wrestle with the mother of all Oedipal complexes. Pun heartily intended.
Enter into this locale one Matt Saldarelli, a young lawyer on his way to a legal ethics seminar. His latent desire to be an actor is fanned by the Tragedians, but to join their cadre he must deface the name of the Bard by writing a play that will make Shakespeare suffer as much as his doomed characters have.
This is an A-1, top shelf farce. Saldarelli has crammed together a slew of comedic influences: early Mel Brooks, Paul Rudnick, and a hint of Beckett and Stoppard. From this stew comes a script of consistently incisive and insightful wit that delivers fresh laughs from top to bottom. Saldarelli is a lawyer by trade, and it's that kind of outsider perspective that makes the lambasting of theatre's most sacred cow all the more pleasing. To give examples is to ruin jokes.
Laura Konsin's direction is wisely economic, and it has to be. The theatre is so tiny that the actors are severely limited in movement choices. All that is forgotten after the first five minutes however, because there is not an inch of the tiny stage that is not put to use. It's a testament to the skill of the director and to her ensemble.
They are quite the ensemble. Well cast and capable they bring a real joy to the stage; it's obvious these guys are having a great time. While the whole cast is consistently fun to watch, there are, as with any show, the obvious standouts. Martin Glyer's Hamlet is a brilliant send-up of the moody Dane, an effete collegiate whose grave matter-of-fact veneer is at mirthful odds with his mother-loving core. Rachel Halper's Juliet is a pint-sized dynamo of teen rage—she has embraced the modern era to the hilt; spouting twitterspeak and screwing anything with a six figure bank account. In hilarious counterpoint to Halper is Ben Holmes's Romeo, a beleaguered boyfriend whose innocence is the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world to every woman except the one he loves.
Am I gushing a little? Yeah. I really, really enjoyed this show. In spite of all of the factors working against this play, the creative team turned every obstacle into an asset. I sincerely hope that this show gets remounted or extended, and that Saldarelli keeps writing for the theatre. Get to see this one before it closes. If you have any semblance of a sense of humor, you'll have a great time.