The Bard by any other name
Cabaret’s latest production provides a fast-paced, crazy good time
The Reduced Shakespeare Cabaret is an actual touring group of three guys who perform scrunched-up, comedic versions of mundane, off-hand subjects such as the history of the world and the Holy Bible. The group has actually appeared in Chico a number of times.
Well, none of those three guys were here last Saturday night, but their funny spin on the complete works of Shakespeare was. And with a talented bunch of local actors performing this roughly 90-minute farce at a break-neck clip, the originators of the piece were not missed.
Jeff Dickenson, Rich Matli, Phil Ruttenburg and Jordan E. Stuhlmueller play performers in a touring troupe who propose to the audience that Shakespeare is too long, too difficult … somebody should cut the work down to its essentials and go, man, go! This they proceed to do.
This is not, in any traditional sense, an “acting” play. In a parody like this, “acting” is utilized to create and maintain a certain sense of the absurd, to establish a foundation upon which the absurdities can be raised. There are moments here and there when a character’s vulnerability or ignorance can be detected. But even in those instances, whatever depth exists is mainly there to evoke laughter. And that’s just fine. What the actors actually bring to this production is the confidence to bait, badger and otherwise interact directly with the audience (all in good fun, of course). They serve as screwy tour guides through the amusement park of Bardland.
Last Saturday, that park contained the following highlights:
Romeo and Juliet (the characters hilariously played by Stuhlmueller and Matli, respectively) is staged like a “wrassling” match, with “Juliet” getting “Romeo” in a headlock and stomping on his toes. Dickenson presided over matters like a ringside judge, and Ruttenburg turned in a funny appearance as Juliet’s nurse. The “wrassling” motif was inspired, suiting the piece curiously well.
All of the history plays are strung together as one big football game, with the crown as the ball and a frantic commentator providing the play-by-play (” … and Richard the Second hands off to Richard the Third … and there he goes, hobbling down the field!").
Titus Andronicus is presented as a Julia Child-type cooking show (if you don’t get it, I won’t tell you why that’s funny); Othello is performed rather effectively as a rap, followed by a funny, over-the-top encapsulation of Macbeth (with the witches shooting craps and everyone wielding outrageous Scottish accents as gracefully as drunks lugging cabers—those telephone-pole-size posts tossed at Highland games); and, after an intermission, the entire night was capped off with not one, not two, but three versions of Hamlet, each a bit faster than the last (they did one more thing, but I’m not giving that away)!
Definitely the funniest bit was during the first Hamlet, when they pulled some poor young lady from the audience and instructed her to play Ophelia. All she had to do was scream when Matli indicated. Then another person was dragged up to portray Ophelia’s Ego, and he was simply instructed to run back and forth on the stage. Then the actors broke the audience into three sections, each representing another Freudian aspect of Ophelia’s mind (Id, Superego, etc.), and assigned each section something appropriate to shout. Round and round our harangue went, Ophelia’s Ego running a groove into the stage, until we were abruptly halted and Ophelia screamed.
It was hysterical! And, in its own way, a perfect demonstration of the general contradictions that drive Ophelia mad.
Director Sue Ruttenburg’s fast-paced blocking and the actors’ snappy delivery drive this show. If it suffers at all, it is only in that the production seems to end too soon. It’s a crazy good time and well worth the price of admission. This weekend the show closes. Don’t miss it.
Oh, and one other thing. If you can afford to spend a few dollars more, the Guzzetti catered meal was excellent—Saturday’s fare was breast of chicken, cheese-stuffed ravioli, rice, salad and thick slices of wheat bread. Be sure to call ahead and reserve your plate should you decide to take advantage of the food. You won’t regret it.