Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mash up your Shakespeare

One more into the time-space-continuum gap! Tony Larkin, Benjamin Evett, and Ed Hoopman indulge themselves.

So - are you ready for a gay-Tom-Stoppard, "Fleance-and-Malcolm-Aren't-Dead-But-Getting-Married-in-Vegas" kind of metaphysical-philosophical mash-up? At first I didn't think I was, either, but I admit the New Rep, and its crack comic cast (headlined by a hilarious Benjamin Evett), did eventually win me over, and I began to indulge Indulgences, the new production of Chris Craddock's meta-comedy which runs through February 6. This is a very silly show, and kind of conceptually sloppy - but it is a funny show, certainly the funniest in town, and you don't have to tell me what that means in January in Boston. (It means the New Rep has a hit.)

And it's nice to see new artistic director Kate Warner, who seemed to stumble slightly on her maiden voyage with Mister Roberts, right herself here, with a crisp, clever production that's tighter than a duck's you-know-what. It's true the play itself isn't nearly that taut - Canadian author Chris Craddock mashes together Shakespeare, Mamet, The Prince and the Pauper, "Fractured Fairy Tales," and a whole lot more in this long-form skit about cross-dressing and destiny - and part of the joke is that he doesn't much care that most of his gambits don't hang together. Shakespeare's Fleance and Malcolm, for instance, who drive the plot of the show, were never even friends in Macbeth, so when they meet for drinks in some sort of Purgatorial pick-up bar with a fallen angel who's a kind of insurance salesman, we do think to ourselves, "WTF, milord?" Or at least I did.

But wait a minute, let's back up. Here's the set-up: two Shakespearean characters (Malcolm and Fleance, played by Ed Hoopman and Tony Larkin) walk into a bar, where they meet, no, not a priest and a rabbi, but a seller of "indulgences" (Benjamin Evett). Remember those? I think the Catholic church actually still sells 'em, but at their height they were the proud pinnacle of Her venerable commitment to corruption - time-off in Purgatory was available for a variety of sins, for a small fee (or a large one, depending on the sin).

Only Craddock's salesman isn't some hack from the Vatican - he's from the Big Kahuna himself. As in Jehovah. Yahweh. The Almighty.

Which is quite an interesting intellectual proposition - God himself is offering an escape hatch from his own morality? Indulgences that work? And get a load of His reason - he wants to "re-inforce free will!" Holy conundrum, Mr. Stoppard! For a moment, it seems like a heavenly host of fascinating dialectics about the knotty problem of pre-destination might be in the offing.

But no such luck; playwright Craddock may scramble the dramaturgical map to pin his themes, but he isn't actually serious enough about them to indulge in any intellectual depth. Instead, he skates along the contradictions of Catholic philosophy to hilarious, but not deeply satisfying, effect. Still, that's enough for Saturday night. I won't get into the silly-and-sillier plot, except to say that Malcolm and Fleance want to both get hitched and kill Dad, who's not hip to modern romance. Only they don't know that Dad isn't actually Dad - he sort of swapped spots in the universe with some schlub from the present day (back in that Purgatorial bar). Who wants his old gig back. Then there's the schemers in the palace, who methinks fpout a moft excellent pastiche of pfeudo-Shakespeareana; they've got their fub-plot, too.

All this comes crashing, or rather mashing, together in the expertly-rendered second half, when Evett's Salesman has second thoughts about just what God hath wrought, and tries to avert the hilarious mayhem he sees about to ensue. Evett's at his desperate best here as he confronts God's "ineffability," although he's really in fine form throughout, and this dissipated, wiseguy with a heart-o-gold probably counts as his best performance in years. When he's on it, Evett owns the stage, and the show, too - but it would be unfair to slight his cohorts in comedy, who know how to give great backup. Neil A. Casey is a delightful hoot (as usual) as Malcolm's Republican dad (and Joel Colodner makes witty hay of his frustrated doppelgänger), Tony Larkin plays Fleance with gay abandon, and Leigh Barrett, whose beauty mark seems to ramble from cheek to cheek, proves she can cut an Elizabethan caper with the best of 'em (Casey and Barrett, with Steven Barkhimer, above left). Based on this performance, I'd love to see her in Merry Wives of Windsor. And I hope I don't have to be in a parallel universe for that to happen.


  1. I should know better than to expect any sense of intellectual consistency from you on this point, Thomas, since you prefer to score points, but can you tease this out for me: Fabuloso premieres in March 2007. Indulgences premieres in August 2008. In your review of the former, you repeatedly refer to it as "a new play" and make the point that it is a prime example of the terrible quality of new plays. In this review, you refer to the new production and give it fairly high marks. I know I'm repeating Isaac's question from the comments below, but wouldn't this be an example of an excellent new play, especially since it's less than one year younger than Fabuloso. Furthermore, maybe you can explain what the difference between a new play and a new production is, in your mind. (Again, to note, a play that you have given high marks, The Seafarer had its New England premiere in October 2008 (two years after its world premiere in Ireland, making it, for the world of New England, the newest of the plays.)

  2. You know, 99, if I had ever said "All new plays are bad - no wait, they're good! - no, hold on, they're bad," then you would have a point. But I never said that. So you have no point.

    Fabuloso is a weak play, and isn't even funny; Indulgences is a better play, but basically works only because it is, indeed, witty. Still, it's too lightweight to become a classic; it certainly isn't "excellent." Meanwhile The Seafarer may well become a classic; it's that strong a play.

    As a critic, my job is to assess plays. I think I've done so; I panned Fabuloso, gave Indulgences mixed-positive marks, and raved over The Seafarer. I'm actually not on some sort of drive to eliminate all new plays from production; but, given that any number of classics would form the basis of a worthier evening than Fabuloso, it seems pretty obvious that my ratings are completely consistent with my general attitude that we could see more classics and fewer new plays - perhaps 30% fewer new plays - and not miss out on anything.

    Indeed, I hate to insist on this, but a critic really should be devoted to winnowing the wheat from the chaff in new plays, and perhaps even discouraging the weakest new plays from being produced. If every new play I saw was as strong as The Seafarer, then I'd worry that not enough opportunities were available for the talent at hand. But as it is, almost every other new play is far, far worse. And so the Merrimack Rep should realize that it's completely cool to program a classic rather than a new play.

    And I do have to tell you: I'm just not as concerned about all these "new play" distinctions as you are. I thought Indulgences was actually a year or so older - but so what? All three of these plays count to me, and to just about everyone else, as "new plays." I know to you all kinds of weighty categorical meaning is hanging on these distinctions - but to me, not so much. Perhaps that's because (and please make note of this) everything I saw this weekend was new. As it is many, if not most, weekends.