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theater: Shaking Up Shakespeare

The Richmond Shakespeare Festival loosens up.


Think I'm kidding? Take a look at what happens if you get cute with Ben Brantley at the New York Times. He'll smack you down so hard you'll be telling your grandchildren how you were once the leading light of the off-off-Hoboken stage. Enough said.

The Shakespeare Festival is staging some of its performances this year at the Turning Basin along the Canal Walk. It's an intriguing location for theater. Trains rumble through the background, the upper floors of La Difference appear to one side of the audience, and people get on and off the tour boats just behind the floating platform used for costume changes. Unfortunately, the sounds of overhead traffic from the Expressway interfere with the show. And the problem is exacerbated by wireless microphones that don't always work.

Nonetheless, the location lends itself to the street-performance nature of the material. The actors interact with the audience on numerous occasions and even pretend to ask for donations at one point. As street performances go, this is fairly timid stuff. There's nothing like the intimidation tactics of, say, the knife-throwing hustlers on Venice Beach, but it's enough to keep everyone off-balance. The show will undoubtedly feel different, if no less crazy, during its performances at Agecroft Hall.

Bourke Floyd is the nominal leader of the three-person troupe. We know this because he gets to wear the snazzy black Converse high-tops. Kevin Flint is the scholar with a shaky hold on the Shakespeare canon. And John Marshall gets the choice lines as a charming simpleton who must wear the wigs and throw up on the audience whenever possible. All three are adept at physical humor, thank goodness, because their voices can't always be heard.

If you're looking for "Dummies Guide to Shakespeare" here, you'll be disappointed. The show begins with a spoof of "Romeo and Juliet" and the Elizabethan convention of men playing female characters. "Othello" is transformed into rap and "Titus Andronicus" into a cooking show reminiscent of Dan Aykroyd's bloody "Saturday Night Live" portrayal of Julia Child. All of the comedies are distilled into a single incomprehensible skit, and the histories are converted into a montage of football play-by-play.

The entire second act is devoted to "Hamlet." The show begins to drag as the sharp wit of the first act deteriorates into a lot of smirking junior-high humor. But things wrap up on a high note with a series of high-speed run-throughs of "Hamlet."

Though the direction is lackadaisical and it is often difficult to hear the actors, the show still works. The physical humor and the sheer obnoxiousness of the script account for a lot of the fun. Perhaps the energy from Shockoe Slip on a warm summer evening contributes to the overall feeling of good cheer. Or maybe, despite all of the distractions, Shakespeare slips through after all.

It's a shame that the troupe engaged in such an egregious violation of the rules for coddling theater critics. Otherwise, I might have written that this production is a lot of good, relatively clean fun. In fact, I might have noted that the show is entertaining even if you don't like Shakespeare that much. But I won't write any of that now. S

"The Compleat Wks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)" will be performed at Agecroft Hall July 5 -11 and at the Canal Walk Turning Basin from July 12-27. All shows start at 8 p.m. and cost $17. Call (866) 227-3849.

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