Chicago Theatre Review
Much Ado About Morbidity
The Complete Deaths – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
There are no less than 75 onstage deaths in the accumulated works of William Shakespeare. Who knew? Well, apparently actor and playwright Tim Crouch, the genius behind the adaptation, whose sassy direction also guides this show, decided to count them. From his research, he’s created a bawdy burlesque of a show that wrings down the curtain on Chicago’s Shakespeare 400. It’s a most fitting and entertaining comic production to commemorate the death of the world’s greatest playwright.
Spymonkey is a troupe of four very talented actors from Brighton, England. Employing clown theatre technique in all their works, they’ve earned the bragging right to be called the leading company of physical comedy in the UK. Here, for a limited engagement, the troupe’s mission is to present all of the deaths dramatized by the Bard in his 37 plays, performing them in one two-hour adult entertainment. Resembling a hybrid of Monty Python, Benny Hill, old fashioned burlesque and an English Christmas Pantomime, this over-the-top merry-go-round melds Shakespeare’s poetic language with slapstick, wisecracks and wit.
The energetic four member company have a field day with all the jests and jokes, hilarity and high camp hoopla presented at breakneck speed. Contrasted with the frenetic performances by the actors, an elderly woman sits off to the side at a table, quietly reading, knitting and playing solitaire. She unobtrusively hits a button that counts down the performed deaths on an overhead LED counter. As each character bites the dust, a buzzer sounds and a second lighted sign, displaying the title of the play and the character’s name, immediately darkens.
Each member of the cast, in addition to playing a multitude of Shakespearean characters, also plays an actor, who brings his own distinct personality to the stage. Prickly, intellectual Toby Park, who plays the creator of this production, is defensive and controlling; Petra Massey, the sole female performer, is flirtatious, whimsical and wise, but holds a grudge against Toby for not being allowed to perform Ophelia’s offstage death; tall, Germanic Stephan Kreiss, who seems quite comfortable in his skivvies, or less, is in love with Petra, a passion which motivates his entire performance; and Aitor Basauri is the crazy Spaniard who, during a very funny sequence with an animated projection of the Bard, receives advice in how to be a truly great Shakespearean actor (which involves loud, over-enunciation, spitting a lot, pointing at things and standing spread eagle). Through these portrayals we learn as much about the actors’ individual motivation as about the literary characters whose lives are about to be snuffed out. It’s their hopes, fears and connections with one other that raises this entertainment above being a mere gag fest of schtick.
The death scenes are played with well-crafted humor and an amazing degree of creativity. A giant movie screen provides the backdrop for the production featuring Sam Bailey’s comical video designs, as well as a number of live projections streamed from a handheld video camera, both on and offstage. Lucy Bradridge’s captivating costumes, Phil Supple’s dazzling lighting design and some spunky choreography by Theo Clinkard and Janine Fletcher complete the look of this show.
While Petra gyrates around the stage portraying Cleopatra, Toby, Stephan and Aitor enter, clad in skintight asp costumes, with snake puppet gloves. In one particularly hysterical scene, Toby plays Titus Andronicus grinding his fellow actors into sausages via a giant meat grinder. We visit such familiar plays as Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello and, of course, Hamlet. But the production also includes the death scenes from the histories, such as Richard III and Henry VI. One of the deaths is even extracted from Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, the lion mauling in the play-within-a-play, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Can there be a more fitting way to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death than by cleverly recreating all the onstage demises from the Bard’s canon of plays? Audiences should be warned, however, that this is a very adult production, with sexual acts depicted, frequent four-letter expletives bandied about, gory gross-outs and a good deal of full-frontal nudity. That said, this is an inventive, often ribald entertainment that’s sure to evoke laughter and gasps of disbelief at just how far this talented British troupe of actors will go for a grin, a giggle or a guffaw.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 30-December 11 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the CST box office, by calling them at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.